Every weekday at 7 a.m., a van drives slowly through the southeastern Brazilian city of Piracicaba carrying a precious cargo — mosquitoes. More than 100,000 of them are dumped from plastic containers out the van’s window, and they fly off to find mates.
But these are not ordinary mosquitoes. They have been genetically engineered to pass a lethal gene to their offspring, which die before they can reach adulthood. In small tests, this approach has lowered mosquito populations by 80 percent or more.
The biotech bugs could become one of the newest weapons in the perennial battle between humans and mosquitoes, which kill hundreds of thousands of people a year by transmitting malaria, dengue fever and other devastating diseases and have been called the deadliest animal in the world.
“When it comes to killing humans, no other animal even comes close,” Bill Gates, whose foundation fights disease globally, has written.
The battle has abruptly become more pressing by what the World Health Organization has called the “explosive” spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus through Brazil and other parts of Latin America. Experts say that new methods are needed because the standard practices — using insecticides and removing the standing water where mosquitoes breed — have not proved sufficient.