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Fiocruz reinforces strategy against dengue with new phases of the Wolbachia project


Oswaldo Cruz Foundation


The Wolbachia Method, patented by the World Mosquito Program (WMP) and conducted in Brazil by Fiocruz, with funding from the Ministry of Health, is experiencing a moment of expansion in the country: the program in Joinville (SC), Foz do Iguaçu (PR) and Londrina (PR) enters a new phase with community engagement work, and the biofactory in Rio de Janeiro receives state-of-the-art equipment to scale up its production of Wolbito mosquitoes. The community engagement work will soon also begin in Uberlândia (MG), Presidente Prudente (SP) and Natal.

Insectarium at the Rio de Janeiro biofactory (photo: Flávio Carvalho/WMP Brasil)

Added to this is the conclusion, on Monday (4/29), of the works on the Belo Horizonte biofactory, part of an agreement by Vale S.A. to repair the damage caused by the collapse of the mining company's dams in Brumadinho in January 2019, which took the lives of 272 people and led to a series of social, economic and environmental impacts. Combined, the actions are part of a national strategy resulting from a partnership between Fiocruz, the WMP and the Ministry of Health against arboviruses. The Wolbachia Method is present in five Brazilian cities: Rio de Janeiro, Niterói, Campo Grande, Belo Horizonte and Petrolina (PE).

According to the Ministry of Health's Secretary for Health and Environmental Surveillance, Ethel Maciel, “expanding the number of cities that use the Wolbachia Method and building new factories, such as the one in Belo Horizonte, are of great importance if we are to face future epidemics and better protect the Brazilian population. This technology is proof that science needs to be increasingly fostered and valued." According to the secretary, this is another step towards bringing more health to people. "Fiocruz's initiative, which the Ministry of Health has been funding since 2013, will be extremely important for the health of the communities in the Paraopeba River valley, resulting in much less cases of the disease and deaths."

In Rio de Janeiro, the biofactory is receiving equipment to scale up the production of wolbito mosquitoes, as Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with the wolbachia bacteria are called, for the new municipalities. The mosquitoes that are part of the parent colony, which produce the Aedes eggs with Wolbachia, are kept in cages. Before automation, the capacity of each cage was 32,000 mosquitoes; today, there are around 80,000 wolbitoes in each of them.

"We have been searching innovative solutions to contribute to the national effort to tackle arboviruses. The construction of new biofactories, as well as the increase in production at existing biofactories, will guarantee the expansion of the Wolbachia Method according to the Ministry of Health's strategy and add to the actions to prepare for the next epidemics,” explains Marco Aurélio Krieger, vice president of Production and Innovation in Health at Fiocruz.

The World Mosquito Program (WMP) is an international non-profit initiative. Its method consists of releasing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with the wolbachia bacterium, which prevents the dengue, zika and chikungunya viruses from developing in the insect, thus preventing transmission. These wolbito mosquitoes are not genetically modified and do not transmit diseases.

Mosquito factory

The Wolbachia Method had already been implemented in parts of the city of Belo Horizonte, with the release of mosquitoes, in partnership with the local government and funding from the Ministry of Health. The implementation of the Wolbachia Method in the capital of Minas Gerais took place in stages. The first stage, in the Administrative Region of Venda Nova, was completed in January 2021. A new expansion began in 2022 and the releases ended last year. A randomized controlled clinical study is still underway. Randomized studies are considered the gold standard in the field of epidemiology and essential for proving efficacy and impact to protect the population.

Facade of the biofactory, whose production is expected to reach 2 million mosquitoes per week (photo: WMP)

With the reparation agreement, Vale began the construction of a biofactory in February 2023, with 1,125,000 m2, on a 4,000 m2 plot in the Gameleira neighborhood. In addition to the construction of the building, Vale has equipped the unit and will pay for its operations for five years. According to the state government, the construction of the building involved an investment of approximately R$ 20 million and the operation stage involves a further R$ 57 million, totaling R$ 77 million. The biofactory was set up on land owned by the state of Minas Gerais. WMP Brazil/Fiocruz will be responsible for maintenance, with funds passed on by Vale as part of the agreement.

In the first phase of the project, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with the Wolbachia bacteria will be released in Brumadinho and in 21 other municipalities linked to the Paraopeba River Basin. The expectation of the Minas Gerais Health Department is that the production of mosquitoes will later be expanded throughout the state.

The biofactory will be responsible for maintaining the complete wolbito cycle, from egg production to adult mosquitoes, further distributing these biological materials and allocating administrative teams. It is estimated that the biofactory's weekly production will reach 2 million mosquitoes a week once it starts operating. Once inserted into the environment, they will breed with the local Aedes aegypti and establish a new population of mosquitoes that do not transmit dengue and other diseases.

Upon completion of the works, the negotiations to obtain the mandatory licenses to operate and the review of contracts with Fiocruz will also be completed. Operations are expected to begin by January 2025.

New phase

In Joinville, the program, which began in December 2023, enters the community engagement phase this Monday (4/29). Actions to disseminate the Wolbachia Method will begin, involving municipal and state education networks, including teacher training, and health teams.

This is the last phase before the mosquitoes are released, which is scheduled for July. The community engagement stage includes communication actions and a survey, already carried out in Joinville, in which more than 80% of those inquired approved the use of the method in the city.

After release, the sites will be monitored to assess the results for approximately one year. The choice of neighborhoods took into account criteria such as the number of outbreaks and confirmed cases. The neighborhoods of Aventureiro, Boa Vista, Bom Retiro, Comasa, Costa e Silva, Espinheiros, Fátima, Floresta, Guanabara, Iririú, Itaun, João Costa, Morro do Meio, Paranaguamirim, Petrópoles, Ulysses Guimarães, and Vila Nova were chosen. Together, they account for approximately 60% of Joinville's population.

To meet this growing demand, the biofactory in Rio de Janeiro, located on Fiocruz's Maré Campus, is undergoing a process of automation, with the import of new equipment. "We have imported state-of-the-art equipment to automate mosquito production at the biofactory in Rio de Janeiro. We have already installed the equipment, made some adjustments and trained employees so that we can increase production capacity in the biofactory and thus meet the demand of the new municipalities with the Ministry of Health," says the leader of the Wolbachia Method in Brazil, Luciano Moreira.

How does it work?

The method consists of releasing Aedes aegypti with Wolbachia so that they can breed with the local Aedes aegypti, establishing a new population of these mosquitoes, all with Wolbachia. Wolbitos are not transgenic and do not transmit diseases.

Wolbachia is an intracellular microorganism present in 60% of insects in nature, but not in Aedes aegypti. When present in these mosquitoes, it prevents the dengue, Zika, chikungunya and urban yellow fever viruses from developing inside the mosquito, helping to reduce these diseases.

Once the wolbachia mosquitoes are released into the environment, they breed with wild mosquitoes and help create a new generation of wolbachia mosquitoes. Over time, the percentage of mosquitoes carrying the microorganism increases, until it stabilizes high without the need for further releases.


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