Mosquito vs. mosquito: Fight fire with fire in Zika outbreak

Genetically-modified mosquitoes could be the Ivan Drago to the Aedes aegypti’s Apollo Creed. The World Health Organization is urging countries affected by the Zika virus outbreak to think both in and outside the box to control the disease-carrying mosquito. “Given the magnitude of the Zika crisis, WHO encourages affected countries and their partners to boost the use of both old and new approaches to mosquito control as the most immediate line of defense,” the UN health agency said. “If (the) presumed associations (between Zika and microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome) are confirmed, the human and social consequences for the over 30 countries with recently detected Zika outbreaks will be staggering.”

There are three types of genetically-enhanced mosquitoes that could be released in order to go ‘attack of the clones’ on Aedes aegypti. One type would be a radiation-sterilized male mosquito – developed at and used by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to control agricultural pests. Another would be a male mosquito modified so that its offspring dies before maturing and multiplying. And the third kind would be a mosquito that carries a bacterium called Wolbachia that is innocuous to humans but would stop the eggs of Zika-infected female mosquitoes from hatching. Regardless of which one they settle on, hopefully when and if they do release them some scientist will say “Fly, my pretties! Fly!”

“For mosquito control, innovative methods seem promising,” WHO assistant director-general, health systems and innovation Dr Marie-Paule Kieny wrote in a commentary on 16 February 2016. “Biological approaches for example, such as the controlled release of bacteria to prevent viral replication in mosquitoes; or genetic approaches, such as the release of genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce the mosquito population, are under consideration.” Apparently, the WHO has apparently learned its lesson from its slipshod response to Ebola and come up with a research and development (R&D) blueprint that “aims to accelerate the availability of medical countermeasures during epidemics and limit damage as much as possible,” Kieny wrote.

The UN health body has identified about 15 companies and research groups that have started working on vaccines – of which two “seem to be at a more advanced stage: a DNA vaccine from the US and an inactivated product from India.” Additionally, 10 biotech companies could provide nucleic acid or serological diagnostic tests, though “we need to understand which type of product – nucleic acid, serologic, rapid test, etc. – will best serve our purposes.” Finally, in the therapeutic area, “studies are being carried out on medicines and other therapies that could prevent infection in vulnerable groups, especially pregnant women.” Currently there is no treatment for the symptoms of the Zika virus other than taking acetaminophen or paracetamol to manage fever and pain and whatnot.

Kieny acknowledged the WHO’s “relatively poor knowledge of the Zika virus,” about which less is known than about Ebola. However, she added that what they did learn from Ebola is that new medical products can be developed faster than thought possible. With that in mind, as soon as potential products are developed and tested to show promise against Zika, they will be fast-tracked through the WHO Emergency Assessment and Listing procedure for the use of experimental products during an outbreak to determine whether they are safe and effective. Similarly, the WHO will support countries looking to register proven products to hasten ethical and regulatory reviews and make the products available as quickly as possible. “WHO will continue monitoring the development of diagnostics and vaccines, as well as therapeutics, and innovative mosquito control measures,” Kieny wrote.

Related: Emergency vaccine for the Zika virus may be ready by year-end