Next month, in a laboratory an hour outside of London, scientists will begin stitching bits of DNA together and inserting them into hundreds of tiny, cucumber-shaped insect eggs. It’s the first step toward engineering a new kind of mosquito–the kind that could help eradicate malaria on this side of the Prime Meridian.
The mosquito is a species called Anopheles albimanus, the primary transmitter of the deadly cancer in Central America and the Caribbean. The scientists work for Oxitec, the UK-based subsidiary of global GMO giant Intrexon, whose portfolio also sports transgenic salmon and non-browning apples. Oxitec has made a name for itself in the pest-prevention business by making mosquitoes and other insects that can’t produce offspring.
Now, with a new $4.1 million investment from the Gates Foundation, Oxitec is putting its patented Friendly( tm) tech inside malaria’s main host in the Western Hemisphere. The company intends to have “self-limiting” skeeters ready for field trials by 2020.
The timing isn’t coincidental. Five years ago, health ministers from ten countries in Central America and the Caribbean got together in the capital of Costa Rica and committed to eliminating malaria in the region by 2020. It seemed reasonable at the time; cases of the deadly illnes had been declining steeply since 2005. But starting in 2015, as the Zika crisis began to unfold, those numbers began to tick back up. The World Health Organization’s 2017 malaria report warned that progress in fighting the disease had stalled and was in danger of reversing.