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Faye Flam

Fighting Zika Virus With Genetic Engineering

New technology could stop deadly diseases. But is the public ready?
Time for a genetic intervention?

Time for a genetic intervention?

Photographer: Saul Martinez/Bloomberg

In a handful of labs around the world, scientists have quietly invented a new and powerful biotech weapon against disease-carrying mosquitoes. Called gene drive, it goes far beyond ordinary genetic modification, bending the rules of inheritance to spread modified genes through vast populations of organisms. If it works as expected, it could be used to extinguish the population of mosquitoes rapidly spreading the Zika virus through South America.

An even more consequential deployment would spread an altered gene through the world’s population of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, endowing them with resistance against the parasite that now kills more than 400,000 people every year.