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As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the globe, scientists are increasingly turning to technology for answers. From genomic sequencing to the use of robotics, we are exploring ways that technology might help us. With this in mind, Google might actually be one of the companies on the forefront of these endeavors. As part of the company’s Verily unit, Google’s Debug Project is looking to combat specific mosquito illnesses. And based on the most recent field results, the project is making serious headway.

Of course, COVID-19 is not related to mosquito illnesses as far as anyone knows. This particular strain of coronavirus appears to have originated in bats and reached humans via an intermediate animal host. However, Google’s use of technology to combat disease of any kind highlights how intimately related technology and science are. By appreciating that these types of pursuits reflect businesses’ social responsibility, Google serves as a role model. Thus, exploring the Debug Project and its success offers a very worthwhile pursuit.

A bunch of mosquitoes trying to get inside
The world may be preoccupied with coronavirus, but mosquito-borne illness is still a killer.

The Debug Project – A Social Responsibility Mission

If you are not familiar with it, Verily is Google’s public health unit. It was launched years ago as part of a social responsibility mission that the company wanted to pursue. In 2015, Verily launched its Debug Project, which was designed to target mosquito illnesses. Throughout the world, more than 10,000 people die every day from specific types of mosquito illnesses. These include disease like dengue fever and the Ziki virus. In pursuing this mission, Verily recruited mosquito biologists, software engineers, and automation experts. Their combined expertise was used to develop novel approaches to combat these mosquito illnesses.

In essence, the Debug Project utilizes a strategy called the sterile insect technique. The goal is to develop and release sterile male insects so that the entire insect population dies off. Thus, Verily applied this approach to mosquitos by developing sterile male mosquitos. In last three years, the Debug Project has released 80,000 sterile males a day around Fresno, California, during summer months. That’s nearly 15 million each year! The released male mosquitos then mate with female mosquitos, which produce no offspring. And because only female mosquitos bite and spread mosquito illnesses, disease rates in theory should decline.

“Once you try to start rearing hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes a week, you run into all sorts of problems. Mosquitoes may be everywhere, but they are really finicky and difficult to grow.” – Bradley White, Lead Scientist of the Debug Project

A Project Not Without Challenges

Sterile insect technique is not necessarily a new method considered for controlling mosquito illnesses. What is novel about Google’s social responsibility project is its use of technology to scale the project toward success. Automation technologies have been used to better separate male from female mosquitoes. Likewise, software and data analytics are utilized to determine where to best release sterile male mosquitoes into the environment. Scientists infect lab mosquitoes with a bacterium, Wolbachia, to make them sterile. Then, emerging disruptive technology is used to expedite the process and scale it to size. Without these additional innovations, the likelihood such a project would be successful would be quite low. But with these additions, the Debug Project has realized tremendous results in the Fresno area.

Based on sample collections in the Fresno area over the last couple of years, this technique reduced female mosquito populations by 93 percent. As a result, Google is now ready to explore larger population areas, especially where mosquito illnesses are prevalent. Of course, some have expressed concerns about the ecologic effects of the Debug Project. But based on detailed scientific analyses, the impact of this approach for mosquitoes in negligible. Mosquitoes are not a significant food source for other species. Likewise, they do not pollenate plants or offer other major benefits. This is what makes the pursuit of this social responsibility project so attractive.

“Field studies allow us to test our discoveries and technologies in challenging, real-world conditions and collect the necessary evidence to bring them to a broader scale. We hope to demonstrate success with Debug Fresno that will benefit the local communities working with us in this study and later other communities globally…” – Verily statement

Partnering with Other Nations in Social Responsibility Efforts

Naturally, Verily’s current success provides hope for other areas of the world that has a higher incidence of mosquito illnesses. The unit has already partnered with the Singapore National Environmental Agency in conducting larger trials in that country. Likewise, Google hopes to have talks with countries in the Caribbean. And ultimately, expansion of its social responsibility project plans to occur in other regions like South America. Based on the positive results to date, Verily hopes to scale the project to an even larger degree. Regions of the world with a higher number of endemic mosquito illnesses are likely to benefit in time.

The advantages these partnership efforts could offer are substantial. Currently, these nations rely on pesticides presently in an attempt to control mosquito illnesses. However, pesticides are toxic in nature and harmful to the environment. Likewise, their effect is short-lived in terms of suppressing mosquito populations. And of course, the potential for mosquitoes to develop resistance to pesticide formulations poses additional problems. In contrast, Verily’s approach is a more sustainable practice. This is what makes this social responsibility project so attractive overall.

A Role Model for Other Social Responsibility Projects

Google’s approach to social responsibility is truly impressive and can serve as a template for other bold businesses. By leveraging its insights and capacities, it has been able to scale proven scientific practices to combat disease. In the process, it has introduced a cost-effective strategy that potentially allows greater protection to millions. While the Debug Project is relevant only to mosquito illnesses, the same approach could address other public health concerns. In a time where we need major health solutions, the Debug Project is a breath of fresh air.

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