Photographer: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg

Alphabet’s Verily Joins Zika Fight With Sterile Mosquito Lab

Alphabet Inc.’s health technology company, Verily Life Sciences LLC, is joining the fight against insect-borne Zika virus by automating the breeding and sorting of sterile mosquitoes that can reduce wild populations.

Verily has developed machines and sensors that can automatically rear, count, feed, sort and transport the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika, said Linus Upson, head of engineering.

Automation will “dramatically lower the costs,” Upson said in a telephone interview, declining to provide any specific numbers.

The call for new mosquito control mechanisms has been growing as the Zika virus has alarmed public health authorities with its rapid spread and potentially serious effects on unborn babies. As of Sept. 28, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 3,625 cases in the U.S. states and 22,069 in U.S. territories, mainly in Puerto Rico.

Sterile Mosquitoes

Sterile mosquitoes have long been considered as a strategy to control mosquito populations and limit the spread of Zika, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and other pathogens carried by the pests. Female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes typically mate only once in their lifetimes, and introducing large numbers of sterile males can stymie breeding and cut populations.

However, overwhelming numbers of male mosquitoes are needed to be successful: in some pilot projects, a ratio of 100 sterile mosquitoes for every single wild mosquito was used, according to Upson. That has made it financially unfeasible to test at scale, he said.

Intrexon Corp.’s Oxitec unit is also working on sterile-insect technology, using genetically modified male mosquitoes. Meanwhile the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is taking a different tack, using infected male and female bugs to spread a bacteria called Wolbachia throughout a broad population. The Wolbachia bacteria suppresses the ability of the mosquitoes to harbor and transmit diseases.

Infected Bugs

Verily is also using Wolbachia but plans to use only infected males, which create unviable eggs when mating with wild females. The company is breeding mosquitoes in a lab in Mountain View, California, and hopes to start a pilot project in early 2017, according to Linus. It’s still searching for a location to run its study.

Verily is one of Alphabet’s new ventures, residing in the tech giant’s so-called Other Bets division alongside smart-home device maker Nest and fast Internet service provider Fiber. In the second quarter, Other Bets generated $185 million in revenue and Alphabet Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said that mostly came from Nest, Fiber and Verily, in that order.

Upson, who made his name as co-creater of Google’s Chrome browser, said that Verily doesn’t have a business model in mind and hasn’t figured out how the “Debug Project” will generate revenue.

“One of the wonderful things about working at Google and now, Verily, is that we get to go after really big and ambitious problems even though we don’t know how it will work out,” he said. However, he noted that the mosquito-borne diseases are a large economic burden. “There will be a sustainable way to turn this into a business.”

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