As the Zika virus ravages pockets of the globe one company is a step closer to battling the deadly virus by creating a mosquito war.
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Oxitec, a unit of Intrexon (XON), produces genetically modified mosquitoes that kill off the native populations and limit the instance of fatal diseases among humans.
Friday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved testing of the pests in the Florida Keys where 15 local cases of Zika have been diagnosed so far.
Ahead of the decision Oxitec CEO Hadyn Parry told FOXBusiness.com his next market needs to be Puerto Rico.
“There’s over 5,000 cases of Zika now and the economic toll and the human misery and the scale of this could be absolutely horrendous. So we would very much like to help in Puerto Rico.”
Oxitec mosquitoes are engineered for insect population control, this works with the use of what the company calls a “self-limiting” gene. The engineered larvae carrying this gene mate with native species unleashing the trait into the wild. The self-limiting gene prevents the affected insects from reaching adulthood. The result is a dramatic decrease in the mosquito populations which is slowing the spread of several deadly diseases.
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“The idea was born out of the use of radiation to sterilize fruit flies in the 1950’s,” says Parry. “But for every problem that came along with radiation, Oxitec’s founder said I reckon we can fix that with genetics.” Why mosquitoes? “We sat down and said ‘this species spreads Zika, Yellow Fever, Dengue’… let’s go after that.”
These genetically modified mosquitoes are already hard at work. Efficacy tests in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands have consistently shown a 90% reduction in the resident mosquito populations.
Oxitec tracks their larvae using a color system; when viewed under fluorescent lighting, the engineered mosquito larvae appear red. Parry says this system is completely innovative in its field; “You use [the mosquitoes] where you need them and not where you don’t… it’s a completely new way of thinking driven by metrics.”
Despite the recent FDA approval Parry argues more needs to be done.
“If people want this to help in the current crisis, which is now, you really need to accelerate this through with emergency authorization. At the end of the day there is an emergency now... If you had a vaccine with this level of efficacy, it would be through in a matter of days.”