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Verily releases 20 million genetically-modified mosquitoes to help combat Zika in California

A branch of Google's parent company, called Verily, is creating millions of genetically-modified infertile male mosquitoes using a robot in order to help fight the Zika virus.

Verily announced in October of 2016 it had plans to fight mosquito-borne diseases such as the Zika virus and dengue fever.

Swarm of Mosquitos

(dmitry_7/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Verily uses an automated sex-sorting procedure to ensure that only males are released, due to the fact that males do not bite people. When the sterile males mate with females in the wild, the eggs cannot develop or hatch.

Roughly 20 million mosquitoes have already been released in Fresno, California, in Verily's first field study in attempts of debugging Fresno. A robot, which was developed by Verily, can raise roughly 1 million sterile mosquitoes every week.

There have been many previous attempts to use the sterile insect technique (SIT) to control mosquitoes. However, traditional methods of using radiation to sterilize insects doesn’t work well on mosquitoes.

Medical Science Professionals Working in a Laboratory

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This study will be the largest United States release-to-date of sterile male mosquitoes treated with Wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacterium. It will take place over a 20-week period in two neighborhoods each approximately 300 acres in size.

Joseph Conlon, a technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, said it is important to remember this strategy will not completely eradicate the problem. It must be integrated with other strategies to utilize the full range of prevention and control options. Therefore, the mosquitoes are appropriately targeted in all of their different vulnerable life stages.

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Conlon said this is not to say people shouldn’t have concerns, but they should educate themselves on the processes and pros and cons of the method.

"It’s difficult to say [if the Zika virus is still an issue] given that it’s a relatively recent epidemiological phenomenon and there is much we don’t know about its communicability. We certainly need to be aware that it hasn’t gone away - and there are plenty of viruses waiting in the wings that are spread by the same species of mosquito," Conlon said.

According to Conlon, the studies to date have demonstrated that there is little risk from GMO mosquitoes. However, experts need to keep an eye out for any genetic anomalies that might arise.

"The developers of the Wolbachia and the Release of Insects with Dominant Lethality (RIDL) techniques are very much aware of the risks involved and are spending a great many resources to ensure the long-term safety of their product," Conlon said.

"With the public’s growing antipathy toward chemical insecticides, there must be newer control strategies developed to augment our means to protect our public from the expanding list of vector-borne diseases challenging our shores on a daily basis," Conlon said.