India’s GBIT and Oxitec announced the launch of the Friendly™ Aedes project to combat the menace of vector borne diseases including dengue and chikungunya. India recently initiated the outdoor caged trials of Oxitec’s Friendly™ Aedes mosquitoes to demonstrate the efficacy of the Friendly™ mosquitoes in suppressing the local Aedes aegypti population.

Aedes aegypti Image/CDC
Aedes aegypti

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Secretary of Department of Health Research inaugurated the outdoor cage trial facility at Dawalwadi, Jalna, Maharashtra to conduct open field trials of the Friendly™ mosquitoes, which are pending approval from the Indian regulatory authorities.

Increasing cases of dengue and chikungunya have been reported in recent years. Presently available methods have not been effective against these public health hazards. We are very optimistic that this pioneering technology from Oxitec will help us to control the mosquito responsible for spreading these diseases,” alluded Mr. Shirish Barwale, Director of GBIT-Novel Technologies.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is responsible for the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and chikungunya. Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes represent a paradigm shift in vector control and thus suppressing population of deadly mosquito. In a nutshell, a male sterile strain OX513A is a genetically engineered strain of Aedes aegypti carrying a repressible, dominantly inherited transgene that confers lethality in immature heterozygous progeny. Released male OX513A adults have proven to be effective for the localised suppression of wild Aedes aegypti and thus effectively control vector borne diseases. Following animated short video explains “Friendly Mosquito technology” developed by Oxitec and India’s GBIT.

Dengue and chikungunya have a devastating effect on Indian citizens every year, and India is in need of new tools to fight the invasive A. aegypti mosquito, which is the primary vector for disease-causing viruses such as dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and yellow fever. Recently published work estimated that dengue alone infects almost 5.8 million people in India annually, and the total financial cost of the disease is estimated at over $1 billion per year. Additionally, in 2016, cities including Delhi saw severe outbreaks of chikungunya in India.

On 6 October 2016, Indian Express reported all out political support to GM mosquitoes technology in India to control outbreak of dengue and chikungunya. The “Friendly Aedes GM mosquito technology” is conceptually simple. A gene is inserted into male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the viruses causing dengue, chikungunya and zika fever. This gene produces a protein that can “switch off” the activity of other genes key to the insect’s survival. Adult males carrying the self-destruct gene are, then, released in large numbers in endemic localities to mate with normal female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and produce offspring that cannot survive beyond larval stage. It is important to note that the lethal gene here is expressed only in the offspring. The adult male is fed an antidote — the antibiotic tetracycline — to prevent the self-destruct mechanism from operating, so as to ensure its own survival and mating with female mosquitoes. In a matter of weeks, the mosquito population drops drastically, as the offspring inheriting the gene without the antidote die. The genetically modified (GM) mosquito route to control dengue or zika has been approved in countries from Brazil and the US to Cayman Islands and Panama. Trials have also been happening in China, Australia and Indonesia on infecting male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with naturally-occurring Wolbachia bacteria and releasing these into the environment for copulating with females in areas where dengue is endemic as reported by Bhagirath Choudhary and Anil Ram Chaudhan in Indian Express on 6 October 2016 Janus-Faced: Politicians oppose GM mustard, but gung-ho about GM mosquitoes!

In 2106, the USA has allowed Oxitec to undertake experiment of “Friendly Aedes technology” at Florida’s Key Haven in an attempt to combat Zika- a mosquito borne virus linked to devastating birth defects. In 2016, Zika virus expanded throughout Central and South America and projected to to creep into north toward the USA. The World Health Organization has called the spread of Zika virus a “global health emergency”.

In the past, Oxitec have successfully conducted trials of “Friendly Aedes technology” in Brazil, Cayman Island and Panama and reported significant reduction of the local populations of Aedes aegypti by more than 90 percent. These friendly mosquito mosquitoes have been approved for use in the Cayman Islands, Panama and Brazil – the hot spot of Zika virus.

Originally published on Jan. 25, 2017 by Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder Director at South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC)