The UMB Post[doc]
Welcome to July 2021 and summer. In this month’s issue, we focus on multiple means to prevent mosquito bites: from what colors of clothes you should avoid to an update on the release of genetically modified mosquitos.
We also address the heartbreak of the coronavirus outbreak in India from the perspective of a scholar living abroad.
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We wish you a wonderful month!
The UMB Post[doc]
Ganna Galitska Metzger
Prevention is the best strategy.
Summer is finally here! While we are recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and planning long-awaited and deserved summer vacations, the yearly onslaught of bloodthirsty mosquitoes is eagerly awaiting their chance to feed on us. If your evening has ever been spoiled by that omnipresent high-pitched buzz that precedes your realizing just how many mosquitos you have fed, the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) has tips for you.
Standing water, bare skin, and dark clothing are three major attractants for mosquitoes. The AMCA recommends people follow the three D’s rule to keep mosquitoes away:
- Drain: Empty out water containers around your household at least once a week
- Dress: Wear long sleeves, long pants, and light-colored, loose-fitting clothing - especially from dusk to dawn
- Defend: Properly apply an EPA-registered repellent such as DEET, picaridin, IR 3535, para-menthane-diol (PMD), 2-undecanone, or oil of lemon-eucalyptus
To ensure that a property is a mosquito-free zone one should: dispose of any tires, buckets, or barrels that can breed mosquitoes; drill holes in the bottom of recycling containers; clear roof gutters of debris; clean pet water dishes regularly; check and empty children’s toys; repair leaky outdoor faucets, and change the water in birdbaths at least once a week. Eliminating water sources, which are crucial habitats for mosquitoes to complete their life cycle and produce offspring, is critical to a community-wide control program.
Mosquitoes are more than just a nuisance. They spread numerous diseases, such as Zika, West Nile, chikungunya, and dengue virus, eastern equine encephalitis, Japanese Encephalitis, La Crosse encephalitis, malaria, St. Louis encephalitis, and yellow fever. Furthermore, mosquito-borne diseases not only affect humans, they also kill birds, reptiles, and endangered species each year. The spread of parasites – including canine heartworm, Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), and Western Equine Encephalitis - also require mosquito control and the awareness of the general public.
As of May 25, 2021, the CDC has reported a total of 664 cases of West Nile virus disease in people. Of these, 505 (76%) were classified as neuroinvasive diseases (such as meningitis or encephalitis) and 159 (24%) were classified as non-neuroinvasive diseases. The incidents were reported in over 35 US states, with the highest number in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and Michigan.
After the 2015–2016 Zika virus epidemic, Zika infection attracted public attention. Although the illness is usually asymptomatic or mild with symptoms lasting up to a week, infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly in which the head is too small and other severe brain defects. Pregnant women are strongly advised not to travel to areas with current or past Zika outbreaks. In 2020-21, there have been no confirmed Zika virus disease cases reported from U.S. territories, although the threat remains probable.
What is SIT?
Sterile Insect Techniques (SITs) are ways to control insects, including mosquitoes. Previously used to eradicate screwworm flies in North and Central America, SITs have been used to control several types of fruit flies and moths. However, using SITs to control mosquitoes is relatively new in the United States. SITs for mosquitoes target specific types or species of mosquitoes and not others. SITs involve three steps: mass production of mosquitoes, sorting males from females, then mass release of sterile male mosquitoes into an area. These males must massively outnumber wild male mosquitoes. Once released, these sterile male mosquitoes mate with wild females and, because of sterility, produce no offspring. Over time, the numbers of the targeted mosquito species in the area are reduced.
SIT mosquitoes cannot reproduce in the wild. Therefore, once SIT male mosquitoes stop being released into an area, the specific species of mosquito being targeted will, over time, return to normal. Because male mosquitoes feed on nectar, they do not bite people or animals. Therefore, people living in the release area will not be bitten more than usual.
Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes of Oxitec
Of the over 200 types of mosquitoes in the United States and US territories, about 12 spread diseases. Many areas in the United States have some types of mosquitoes – the most notorious is Aedes aegypti - that can become infected with and transmit Zika, chikungunya, and dengue viruses. Interestingly, Ae. aegypti mosquitoes can be genetically modified and used to control other Ae. aegypti mosquitoes in a community. In the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authorized use of OX5034 GM Ae. aegypti mosquitoes for release in counties in Florida and Texas. This EPA authorization allows local mosquito control programs to evaluate how effective GM mosquitoes are in reducing Ae. aegypti mosquitoes in areas where they have been released.
In April 2021, after a decade of fighting for regulatory approval and public acceptance, a biotechnology firm named Oxitec finally released genetically engineered mosquitoes into the open air in the United States for the first time. The experiment launched in the Florida Keys will test this method for suppressing populations of wild Aedes aegypti, which are responsible for practically all mosquito-borne diseases transmitted to humans in the region. In detail, bioengineered male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which do not bite, are released to mate with the wild female population. The genetically engineered males carry a gene that passes to their offspring and kills female progeny in early larval stages. Male offspring do not die but instead become carriers of the gene and pass it to future generations. As more females die, the Aedes aegypti population should dwindle.
According to Oxitec, the first “saboteur” males emerged within the first two weeks of May. About 12,000 males will exit the boxes each week over the following 12 weeks. In a second phase later this year Oxitec intends to collect even more data, as nearly 20 million mosquitoes will emerge over a period of about 16 weeks. The progress is monitored by trap devices that catch study mosquitoes and assess multiple parameters, including travel distance of males, life duration, the effectiveness of breeding, and rate of female elimination from mosquito population. Since Oxitec mosquitoes carry a fluorescent marker gene that makes them glow when exposed to a specific color of light, it makes identification of study mosquitoes easier.
As Florida experiences an increase in mosquito-borne disease, the innovative GMO approach of mosquito control from Oxitec sounds hopeful. Genetically engineered mosquitoes might be a good alternative to insecticides, which are used heavily in the United States to control insect populations. This has resulted in the evolution of mosquitoes that are resistant to insecticides. Oxitec aims to present the results to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which gave the green light for the trial. The data will help the EPA to determine whether Oxitec can release the mosquitoes more broadly in the United States. The company is still testing them in Brazil, Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Malaysia.
Despite its innovation, the creative idea of Oxitec has faced a strong residential pushback in the Keys. The public is concerned about the possibility of being bitten or potential ecosystem disruption, as well as being generally displeased about their home being chosen as the location chosen for a test site. Heated discussions included threats of derailing the experiments by spraying insecticides near the release points from residents. Others are suspicious and hesitant to believe the statements of researchers at Oxitec, due to concerns that “it is coming from a company” and involves for-profit business. Oxitec’s ideas remain promising, and as transparent data is gathered on the mosquitoes’ impact, including on local ecosystems, hopefully, the community members will feel more comfortable with the situation. Meanwhile, Oxitec employees have taken precautions against vandalism by placing their mosquito boxes on private, fenced-in properties, and not disclosing their precise locations to the public.
When the Coronavirus outbreak reached the status of a pandemic, one of the first countries to enforce a national lockdown was India. Despite its population size, a sizable portion of which was below the poverty line, the rebellious, and frivolous nature of its citizens, India’s nationwide lockdown worked. Infection rates were always low and soon became an example for several countries to follow. As the research and development towards the development of a vaccine against COVID-19 were escalating, India again came to the forefront, by being one of the leading manufacturers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. In a gesture of goodwill, despite Indian nationals not having been vaccinated, tens of millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccines began to be donated to neighboring countries. With dropping hospitalization rates and a decrease in the number of new coronavirus cases, the idea of widespread immunity began to circulate.
With this, political rallies and religious gatherings began to take place in full swing. The northern states of India saw tens of thousands of individuals gather from all over the country on the banks of the popular river-Ganges as part of the ‘Kumbh Mela’. A dip in this holy river is believed to cleanse one of their sins. More than 2000 new COVID-19 positive cases arose from the attendees of the Mela and they all became super-spreaders traveling back to their state and spreading it to the large population of people. Hospitalization rates began to exponentially increase, alarmingly most of them were between 30-45 years of age. Yes, this was the mutant variant of SARS-COV2 virus that was not only spreading fast, but also causing severe disease.
Between March-May, people in India went through a massive grieving period. Thousands of infected individuals were dying, because hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen cylinders and tanks were in shortage, hospitals and clinics were extremely understaffed, and vaccine supply was exhausted. Crematoriums were now burning more than 200 bodies each day and eventually had to transform nearby parking areas to makeshift cemeteries. There was not a news channel that did not show aerial view pictures of India burning. It was devastating and now the world has noticed, finally...
As an Indian immigrant living in the United States, the past year, my thoughts, and concerns were always about how my parents were managing during lockdown, do they have masks, a thermometer, a pulse oximeter? However, the last three months have terrified me so much that the fear and anxiety have made me numb with pain. I know I share this pain and fear with the numerous students, and scholars who are living outside their home country, away from their loved ones, to further their education but trapped away, helpless. I have watched and attempted to console friends who have lost their parents and are riddled with the guilt of not being able to travel back to perform last rites. I dread each day my mother does not answer the phone, or when she has a slight cough, imagining, what if…
I am privileged to be fully vaccinated. I am blessed and fortunate that despite the shortage in doses, both my parents in India are also fully vaccinated. But most of the population in India isn’t, not because they chose not to, but because the demand is far greater than the supply. There is no room to incentivize vaccines in India. The ripple effect of this is being felt across the globe. Several developing nations that solely depended on India for the supply of vaccines are now seeing another surge in coronavirus cases. While most cities in the United States are feeling that breath of fresh air without their masks, several other countries around the world are reinforcing lockdown procedures. Although India has ramped up its vaccination supply, it would still take a long time to fully vaccinate the population of 1.366 billion. It is encouraging that approximately 25% have received at least one of the two doses of the vaccine, but there is a lot of uncertainty as to when they will receive their second dose. The rest of the developed countries are taking baby steps now, trying to stem the flow of cases, donating essential supplies and vaccine doses, but are they a tad bit too late?
How do we move on? How do you stay thousands of miles away from aged parents and focus on your research/your course work? How do you manage to smile at your children knowing your parent or family member is battling COVID-19? You just do... Life gives you a choice to either stay in grief, or to move on hoping for a better tomorrow. So, when my 78-year-old, perfectly healthy uncle finally succumbed to COVID-19 in May of 2021, I grieved his loss, comforted my father who lost his brother, my cousins who lost their father, got on the Zoom calls for the memorial service, and then went back to reading that bedtime story for my daughter, assuring myself that the sun will shine brighter tomorrow.
July 14 - PDAC (Postdoc Advisory Committee) Meeting. Zoom link will be sent out.
August 9 – August 13 – Introduction to Clinical and Translational Research at UMB & Baltimore VA
about our Employee Assistance Program?
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