Officials in Miami trying to stop the outbreak of Zika are exploring the use of mosquitoes infected with bacteria that inhibit the insects’ ability to transmit the virus.
Florida’s surgeon general has been notified by Miami-Dade County that it may try using Aedes aegypti mosquitoes artificially infected with the naturally-occurring bacteria Wolbachia by researchers affiliated with the University of Kentucky, which promotes the approach under the brand name MosquitoMate.
Miami-Dade officials have also been considering the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes to help stop Zika’s spread, technology promoted by the Oxitech company.
The county has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine the best approach.
The MosquitoMate approach involves releasing non-biting male mosquitos, which seek out and mate with Zika-carrying females. Because only the males carry the bacteria, the offspring dies. With repeated releases over time, the population declines, and with it, the threat of Zika and other tropical diseases carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the limited use of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and in California. In those cases, the bacteria-dusted mosquitoes were released into the wild and produced offspring that never matured.
Another approach using Wolbachia is being developed by Eliminate Dengue, a program supported by international coalition of groups and countries including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government. It says its research shows Wolbachia can stop Zika and other viruses from growing inside the mosquito and being transmitted to people.
Eliminate Dengue says it releases both male and female mosquitos, and because both are infected with the bacteria, their offspring doesn’t die. Instead, Wolbachia spreads in the wild mosquito population, eventually reducing its ability to spread disease to humans.
Phil Lounibos, a professor at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Florida, told The Miami Herald that he prefers the bacterial approach, which he calls “ecologically sounder.” He said it requires fewer mosquito releases, which in the end would be cheaper for taxpayers.