Can tech help end the Zika virus?

World War II-era health warnings

Need to Know

The mosquito is the deadliest animal in the world. According to the World Health Organization, those tiny disease vectors with wings kill 725,000 people every year (compare that with humanity’s 475k and suddenly we don’t look so bad), through the spread of malaria, dengue, and yellow fever.

Zika is the latest mosquito-borne virus to raise concerns – today, the WHO will debate whether it will declare an international health emergency. And with the recent confirmation of 22 Zika cases in the United States since 2007, look for Ebola-level hysteria to set in any day now.

But what if the best answer to fighting the Zika virus isn’t from a vaccine or treatment, but instead involved the genetic modification of mosquitoes?

British biotech company Oxitec has genetically modified the Aedes aegypti mosquito to have offspring that die before they can breed. A pilot program has already released the mosquitoes in a small São Paulo neighborhood; the company reports an 82% reduction in wild mosquito larvae since April 2015.

Inevitably, a few, less-than-reliable publications are blaming the Zika outbreak on the genetically modified mosquitoes themselves.

And while the ethics and impact of eradicating an organism are far from clear, a group of scientists convened by Nature largely agreed that the benefits of destroying mosquitoes would far outstrip any negatives.

Bill Gates has also endorsed the genetic modification of mosquitos. In April, 2014, he wrote about an Indonesian lab that works to prevent mosquitos from spreading dengue.

If you want to go deep on the GM mosquito debate, Radiolab episode “Kill ‘Em All” from March, 2014 is an excellent place to start.

Now go forth (and get swatting).