Philanthropy vs. Mosquitoes: The Funders Giving Big Money to Fight a Tiny Insect

Scientists have been researching genetic modification technology for the Aedes aegypti mosquito in a collective effort to stop the spread of deadly viruses. However, as researchers warn, genetically modifying or purposefully manipulating gene pools in nature is rife with complications.

That said, we aren’t talking about chickens or corn, we’re talking about mosquitos, or what Bill Gates refers to as "the deadliest animal in the world." And in this case, we’re talking about the Aedes aegypti, the tiny insect that is responsible for infecting millions with debilitating and sometimes deadly viruses. Surely this can be viewed as a rare case when genetic modification is a positive undertaking.

Bill Gates loves all things science and tech, especially when it comes to saving lives, and the Gates Foundation has been locked in a battle with mosquitoes for years.  But there’s a different, more natural approach to halting, or at the very least, reducing the spread of diseases like malaria, Zika, and dengue, and it doesn’t involve genetically modifying anything. Instead of altering DNA, this approach involves the use of a bacteria called Wolbachia, a naturally occurring bacteria that is currently present in up to 60 percent of all insects worldwide. Mosquitos carrying Wolbachia are far less able to transmit viruses. Unfortunately, this bacteria is not present in the Aedes aegypti.

A powerful mosquito-fighting collaboration has formed to introduce Wolbachia into the Aedes aegypti mosquito species in an effort to “significantly reduce the capacity of mosquitos to transmit viruses to humans.” The Eliminate Dengue Programme (EDP) has already conducted small-scale Wolbachia deployment in Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil, resulting in no local transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses. Now, it’s time to take those successes to the next level.

The Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust are providing $18 million in funding to EDP to launch large-scale Wolbachia deployment programs in Latin America. Along with support from USAID, the U.K. government, and a $3.7 million give from the Brazilian Ministry of Health, EDP will begin its Wolbachia interventions in large urban settings across Bello, Antioquia, and parts of Rio de Janeiro.

In its long battle against mosquito-borne illnesses, for which it's given hundreds of millions of dollars, Gates has mainly targeted malaria. But other illnesses like dengue and Zika are on this funder's radar as well.

While Zika remains a global health threat, dengue has been a threat for years. And the situation is worsening.

Brazil has been dealing with an ongoing dengue problem for some time, and the municipality of São Paulo is currently experiencing an outbreak. By mid-February of 2016, the city saw a 163 percent increase of the disease compared to the same period in 2014. For the past decade or so, Gates has poured over $150 million into dengue projects around the world. Although funding in recent years has slowed significantly, it’s definitely on the uptick given the $18 million Gates and the Wellcome Trust put up for EDP. Gates had awarded just under $6 million to combat dengue in all of last year.

Related: With More Dengue Outbreaks on the Horizon, Will Gates Increase its Funding?

The Wellcome Trust has mosquitoes on the mind as well. Earlier this year, the trust, along with the Medical Research Council and the Newton Fund, gave £3.2 million to support the Zika Rapid Response Initiative. The money has funded 26 Zika projects around the world and focuses on, among other things, the nature of the virus and how it’s transmitted.  

Wellcome Trust may not be a name that is as easily recognizable as Gates, but it’s one of the world’s largest funders of scientific research and is the second largest charitable foundation on the globe. Last year, the trust announced that it would increase its health-related spending by close to $8 billion over the next five years. The new strategic framework names drug-resistant infection and vaccination as two of its four initial funding priorities. Also on its funding agenda is helping prepare the world for the “next major epidemic."