The world’s richest man has founded a £14.5 million programme to tackle the problem through special mosquitos
- Recently two UK tourists in Florida were reported to have contracted Zika
- But help is on the way… researchers have found a new approach to the jab
- Bill Gates reveals his plans in an exclusive interview with Good Health…
Two weeks ago, two British tourists in Florida were reported to have contracted the Zika virus. The Foreign Office is now advising pregnant women not to visit Florida.
The news came as Bill Gates announced the details of a major project to tackle the problem.
The richest man in the world is turning his unrivalled global power to fighting Zika, the newest pandemic virus to threaten humanity.
Speaking exclusively to Good Health in a small conference room overlooking the Houses of Parliament, he leant back in his chair and declared: ‘I think it’s very likely we will have a vaccine against Zika and the intervention we’re working on here will be one that makes a big difference.’
Now 61, Mr Gates is rumpled-looking when we meet, and has little of the gloss you might associate with immense power and wealth.
While Mr Gates remains low key in explaining what he is doing, his intentions are anything but.
‘We put $30 million into malaria research in 2002, we are the biggest funder of such research,’ he said. Now it’s Zika’s turn.
Zika is spread by bites from disease carrying mosquitoes and the ‘intervention’ he was referring to are specially produced Zika-resistant mosquitoes designed to breed with wild mosquitoes and destroy their ability to transmit the virus to us.
If money is the answer, Mr Gates is the man who will conquer Zika. He was in London to launch a £14.5 milhead, lion programme to test this new way of neutralising Zika in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Medellin in Colombia.
A vaccine couldn’t come too soon.
Zika has affected babies in 68 countries, mainly tropical, and is spreading. The virus, which causes stillbirth or microcephaly, an abnormally small could infect up to 93 million people before the epidemic dies out, according to statisticians in the journal Nature Microbiology in July, raising the frightening prospect of a major worldwide threat to an entire generation.
Last month Public Health England revealed that eggs from tropical tiger mosquitoes, capable of carrying Zika, have been found in Folkestone, Kent, but with winter approaching, added there is ‘currently no risk to public health in the UK’.
However experts predict that more tiger mosquitoes are likely to arrive in Britain. ‘It’s important the Government invests in creating enhanced surveillance and control measures for mosquito species that may be imported from other countries,’ according to James Logan, associate professor of medical entomology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
The worldwide Zika eradication plan being backed by £6.5 million from Bill Gates has been topped up with £4.1 million from Britain’s Department for Overseas Development and the Wellcome Trust, with the rest coming from the U.S., Brazilian and Colombian governments. The project is being led by Professor Scott O’Neill, dean of science at Monash University in Melbourne.
It involves releasing millions of eggs from mosquitoes specially bred to carry bacteria called wolbachia which alter the mosquito’s immune system to make it resistant to Zika so it doesn’t carry it.
The plan is Wolbachia mosquitoes will mate with wild mosquitoes and spread resistance to Zika, as well as dengue fever and chikungunya, both debilitating diseases which infect up to 500 million people a year, also transmitted by mosquito bites.
The Gates project is focused on aedes aegypti, the mosquito strain most responsible for transmitting tropical viruses (although another strain, aedes albopictus, the tiger mosquito whose eggs were found in Folkestone, has been identified by experts at London’s Natural History Museum as a danger capable of spreading 25 viruses including Zika, while research in Brazil has shown a third species, culex quinquefasciatus, may also carry Zika).
The project involves people taking home boxes (the size of popcorn tubs) containing aedes aegypti eggs carrying the wolbachia bacteria and a supply of the food the mosquito larvae eat. Once the mosquitoes grow wings, householders are meant to release them.
In an earlier study started in 2014, schoolchildren in the city of Townsville, in Queensland, Australia, were recruited to take home the boxes and educate their parents on it.
Earlier this year scientists announced that at least 80 per cent of the mosquitoes in Townsville were believed to be now Zika-free. Now the technique is to be tried in South America.
Almost a decade ago, Mr Gates announced he was leaving the hands-on management of his Microsoft empire to other people to devote himself full time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charitable enterprise.
Professor O’Neill was alongside Mr Gates for the project’s launch last week. He recognises that getting the public to help breed mosquitoes is a difficult strategy: ‘It’s not what people want to do,’ he admits.
‘All their lives they’ve been told to kill mosquitoes and now they’re being asked to nurture and release them into the environment. That’s why we’re involving children.’
Meanwhile, there are about 30 other Zika vaccines in development, some of which could hold as much promise, but it’s not clear that any have a similar scale of investment as the wolbachia project. Seek, a London biotech company, has devised a vaccine using a harmless mosquito saliva protein.
After it’s injected into people, their bodies produce antibodies to the protein which then prevent viruses including Zika, getting in via a mosquito bite.
The first human trials are to start next month. Seek tried unsuccessfully three times to get funding from the Gates Foundation, before turning to the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health
A Seek spokesman said: ‘Scientific research is very fashion driven and if there is huge in one particular field, that can eclipse interest in ideas that might work better.’
Mr Gates said while he didn’t know specifics about vaccine research: ‘The [wolbachia project] isn’t a replacement for drugs, vaccines or other treatments but this intervention alone could make a big difference.’