Gates Foundation to scale potential game changer in Zika, dengue control

A task force to combat the proliferation of the transmitting agent of dengue fever, chikungunya fever and zika virus does surveys in a neighborhood in Planaltina, Brazil. Photo by: Pedro Ventura / Agência Brasília / CC BY

A coalition of governments and philanthropies announced Wednesday $18 million in funding to roll out the rapid scale-up of a promising new mosquito control method in Zika-hit Brazil and Colombia.

The U.K.’s Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development and the governments of Colombia and Brazil, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, will fund the $18 million effort. The Gates Foundation is the largest donor, with $8 million, followed by USAID, and the Wellcome Trust jointly with DfID, both offering $5 million.

If successful, the innovation will be a brand new form of vector control and potentially the most successful health intervention funded by the Gates Foundation to date.

“In terms of any other interventions we’ve measured, this is off-the-charts,” Bryan Callahan, deputy director of executive engagement at the Gates Foundation told Devex.

The technology works by infecting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes — the species responsible for transmitting a host of deadly diseases including Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever — with the common bacteria Wolbachia, rendering mosquitos’ offspring unable to transmit disease.

If the method is as effective as the trials, it could increase protection from most deadly viruses transmitted by this species by 40 percent in tested areas within a year, Callahan told Devex on the sidelines of the 2016 Grand Challenges annual meeting in London.

The method was developed and tested over the last decade by the Eliminate Dengue Program, an Australia-based international nonprofit research collaboration that is an awardee of one of the Gates Foundation’s earliest Grand Challenges funding schemes.

With this new funding, Callahan said, “we’re basically taking Eliminate Dengue up to the power of ten in terms of implementation,” while simultaneously tackling a global health crisis in Zika- and dengue-affected countries.

The trials will span over most of the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, with a combined area of more than 800 square kilometers.

“What’s really exciting about the trials in Colombia and Brazil is of course they are trials of an important end point, but they’re also actually public health interventions all by themselves,” Steven Buchsbaum, deputy director of discovery  and translational sciences at the Gates Foundation told Devex.

“Zika is a crisis, and it’s a crisis in those countries, and it’s now rapidly tested at a scale that has significant health impact,” he said.

Is knowledge infectious?

The greatest challenge to scaling up this new investment will be community engagement, Callahan said. To infect the mosquitoes with Wolbachia bacteria, households must release pre-infected mosquitoes into the air. The mosquitoes then mate with uninfected local mosquitoes, spreading Wolbachia to offspring.

“You’re trying to convince populations to release Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, not something they would normally be supportive of, and it requires a great deal of community engagement and community education,” he said.

“So the innovation has not just been on the science side but also on the social marketing side.”

In smaller trials in Australia, Callahan explained, households were given “kits” the size and shape of takeout noodle boxes to grow and release their own Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes.

“You’re supposed to fill it up halfway with water, hang it on a tree-limb in the shade, and three weeks later out pop your Wolbachia mosquitoes,” he said. “You need about 20 percent of households to participate in any given area in the distribution in order for Wolbachia to become dominate in the mosquito population.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.