Scientists Release Genetically Modified Mosquitoes To Fight Dengue Disease

Scientists in Brazil are releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment to combat soaring cases of dengue fever in the country.

More than 1 million cases of the viral, mosquito-spread infection have been reported in the first two months of this year, 226% more than were reported in the same period in 2023. Various cities are in states of emergency.

According to the Associated Press, for example, in February, Rio de Janeiro declared the outbreak a public health emergency after the city recorded more than 42,000 cases of the disease since the start of the year.

Almost half of the world’s population lives in areas with a risk of dengue infection. In Brazil, the disease is endemic, meaning it is constantly circulating. Between 2003 and 2019, more than 11 million cases were reported in the country, with peak transmission commonly occurring during the annual rainy season, from October to May.

Only 1 in 4 people who are infected with the dengue virus develop symptoms of disease, which include fever, headache, and nausea. These symptoms generally clear within two to seven days. However, the disease can sometimes progress and become severe, leading to hospitalization and possibly death.

No specific treatment is available for the infection; instead, medical care aims to relieve patients’ pain and maintain their vitals. The disease can’t be spread directly from person to person.

Faced with a rising number of dengue cases, health authorities in Brazil are testing alternative approaches to control the spread of the disease, in addition to rolling out a vaccine. These strategies include genetically modified mosquitoes, an effort spearheaded by biotech company Oxitec.

The company breeds male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that spreads the dengue fever virus to humans. They are genetically modified to carry a gene that kills any female offspring they spawn before the pests reach adulthood.

Dengue fever is spread only through the bites of female Aegypti mosquitoes, so releasing these modified mosquitoes into a region can help reduce the number of pests that can spread the virus to people.

Brazil isn’t the first country to receive Oxitec’s designer pests. In 2021, for instance, genetically modified Aegypti mosquitoes were released for the first time in the U.S. to reduce the number of wild, disease-causing mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.