Mutant mosquito may help snuff out Zika

Genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are released in the city of Piracicaba, Brazil, on Jan 28, 2016.
Genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are released in the city of Piracicaba, Brazil, on Jan 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA • Genetically modified mosquitoes that will help fight the Zika virus are getting urgent attention from American regulators.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the final stages of reviewing an application from Oxitec to conduct a field trial in the Florida Keys, the British company's chief executive officer Hadyn Parry said in a phone interview.

Oxitec genetically modifies the males in a breed of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti - responsible for transmitting Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever - so that their offspring die young.

The Zika virus has been spreading "explosively" in South and Central America, the World Health Organisation said last week. A vaccine could take years to develop, drug-makers and health experts have cautioned.

"In the US, fortunately so far, there isn't any transmission of the disease. But the question is how long will that situation last?" Mr Parry said. "If it does come in, then you need to be able to act quickly."

In the United States, the risk is that travellers will return from affected countries with the virus in their blood and get bitten by mosquitoes in the US, thus leading to local transmission.

Addressing concerns that a modified mosquito could spread and take over from other species, Mr Parry said: "With ours, it's the complete opposite - it's a self-limiting gene; they can't reproduce."

Oxitec's FDA application includes an environmental assessment that will be published for public comment. The regulator will complete its evaluation after reviewing the information with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a statement on the FDA website.

An FDA spokesman declined to comment beyond referring to the statement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Mutant mosquito may help snuff out Zika'. Print Edition | Subscribe