Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes could be released into the state of Florida to combat Zika virus after 15 people caught the disease from local insects.
Congress could decide within weeks to grant an emergency licence to British biotech company Oxitec, which has engineered a line of insects whose offspring are unable to grow to adulthood, and so cannot reproduce.
The company has already build a lab in the Florida Keys and is just waiting for the green light from the government and health officials.
Trials in the Cayman Islands and Brazil have already shown the technique can wipe out up to 96 per cent of dangerous aedes aegypti mosquito and Oxitec believe that the technique could eventually eliminate diseases like Zika, Dengue and Yellow Fever.
Oxitec Chief Executive Hadyn Parry who attended a recent Congress hearing and called for emergency use, said they were expecting a decision soon.
“The Zika threat is here and now and there is now local transmission in Florida so that is why I urged Congress to seriously consider emergency use,” he said.
The Zika outbreak was first detected last year in Brazil, where it has been linked to more than 1,700 cases of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies.
The virus has spread rapidly through the Americas and Caribbean and its arrival in the United States had been widely anticipated.
On Wednesday, health officials began an aerial insecticide spraying campaign covering 10-miles around the virus hub but it is only likely to kill around one third of the mosquitoes.
The GM mosquitoes are genetically engineered to have a ‘kill switch’ gene which is passed to offspring and prevents them reaching maturity. A second genetic alteration causes the pupae to glow in the dark so that scientists can keep track.
They were initially released into the town of Piracicaba, near Sao Paolo which has a population of around 5,500 people.
Secretary of Health in Piracicaba, Dr Pedro Mello, said the trial had been a success and they were planning to expand the release into the main city where the population is around 60,000.
Speaking at a briefing in London on Wednesday he said: “ There was a neighbourhood where the problems was particularly bad. They started using the Oxitec methodology in the neighbourhood and the results were very significant.
“In the neighbourhood there was a significant decrease in the number of cases of fever. The method is proven to be a lot more efficient than the method previously used.”
Pregnant women have been advised to stay away from an area North of Miami in Florida
Dr Andrew McKemey, Head of Field Operations at Oxitec who led the trials in Piracicaba said: “This technique has consistently been able to suppress wild populations.
“Conventional methods you would struggle to get 30 per cent reduction so achieving 80-90 per cent is a step change in efficacy. This technology is incredible safe and it’s incredibly environment friendly.
“In Piracicaba we’ve achieved substantial levels of control. This is the largest programme we’ve done to date. We saw this year that for the whole city the cases were reduced from this area 90 per cent.
“We could start immediately in terms of Florida Keys, we’ve already build a lab there with a Florida Keys Mosquito Control Project so we can move on quickly.”
The company is currently producing 60 million mosquitoes a week in its factories but said it could easily be scaled up to provide insects across the world.
On Wednesday it emerged that three US serviceman had contracted Zika while overseas.
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