Google parent Alphabet hacks bugs, will dump 20 million of them on Fresno: report

Fear not, Fresnovians — but keep your eyes out for a slowly cruising van.

The life sciences branch of Google parent Alphabet plans to release 20 million mosquitoes in Fresno, starting July 14, according to a new report.

These are mozzies of the Aedes aegypti variety, and they can carry Zika, dengue (aka “breakbone fever”) and chikungunya, which can present similar symptoms to dengue.

As appropriate of an initiative coming from Alphabet, the mosquitoes that will make their new homes in the self-described “best little city in the U.S.A.” have been raised by machines.

Here’s why there’s probably no reason for worry: the mosquitoes are all male, and it’s females that bite and spread disease.

In fact, life-sciences unit Verily’s planned release of a million mosquitoes a week for 20 weeks should actually be cause for celebration in Fresno.

“The male mosquitoes are infected with a bacteria that, while harmless to humans, creates non-hatching dead eggs when they mate with wild females — hopefully cutting the mosquito population and the transmission of the diseases they carry,” Bloomberg reported July 14.

The Aedes aegypti  mosquito is non-native to the Central Valley, first arriving in Clovis and Madera in the summer of 2013 and soon spreading into Fresno, according to the Fresno Mosquito & Vector Control District.

The females are unusually troublesome.

“A voracious blood-eater, (it) attacks people in daylight, but mealtime can extend to after dusk,” the Fresno Bee reported in April.

One bite is often not enough for this aggressive mozzie, which is known to follow people into homes and cars.

“They will bite, take off, come back  and they’ll take multiple bites,” Tim Phillips, manager of the mosquito control district, told the Bee.

With regard to this mosquito, the stakes are high in Fresno, which had six Zika cases in 2016, five in people who caught it in foreign lands, and one via sex with an infected person, according to the Bee.

“All it will take for a home-grown Valley mosquito to infect someone is for an infected traveler to return home and be bitten by a mosquito that then bites another person,” the paper reported.

Locally acquired dengue has been reported in Texas and Florida, while locally acquired chikungunya has been reported in Florida, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Verily’s project won’t be the first time male mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia bacteria have been released in the Central Valley. Last year in Clovis, thousands were let loose, according to the Bee.

However, controlling a mosquito population requires a minimum of seven infected mosquitoes for every wild male mosquito, Bloomberg reported.

“Verily’s contribution has been to create machines that automatically rear, count, and sort the mosquitoes by sex, making it possible to create vast quantities for large-scale projects,” the site reported.

Verily told Bloomberg the Fresno initiative will be the largest-ever U.S. release of sterile mosquitoes.

While many Californians are familiar with the practice of dropping sterilized Mediterranean fruit flies from planes, Verily will be taking to the roads in two 300-acre neighborhoods for its work, in a “bug-releasing van,” according to Bloomberg.


Photo: A female Aedes aegypti mosquito (U.S. Southern Command/U.S. Centers for Disease Control)


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