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Exterminate All Mosquitoes

Zikavirus, which is now spreading rapidly throughout South America and the Caribbean, is just the latest mosquito-borne disease to plague mankind.

Mosquitoes spread Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, a variety of forms of encephalitis (Eastern Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, LaCrosse Encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, and others), West Nile virus, Rift Valley Fever, Elephantiasis, Epidemic Polyarthritis, Ross River Fever, Bwamba fever, and dozens more.

I’ve been unable to find a reliable overall death toll for mosquito-borne disease. However, it is likely that at least a million people die a year from malaria alone. Countless more die from the other diseases. It is known that the number of people infected with one disease or another by mosquito bites every year is in the hundreds of millions.

In short, the mosquito is one of mankind’s greatest enemies.

Thanks to the recent development of CRISPR/Cas9 based gene drive technology, the human race is now at last on the cusp of having the capacity to drive those varieties of mosquito that feed upon humans (which are a minority of the 3500 known species) entirely into extinction, by producing mosquitoes that will produce fertile male descendants but no fertile female descendants. [See my explanation after the end of this essay on how this might be done.*]

Few actions could reduce human misery and improve the condition of mankind so greatly as the permanent elimination of mosquitoes and the myriad of diseases they spread throughout the world. It would be worth doing even if it required decades and vast expenditures to accomplish. The fact that it can be done at fairly low cost and quite quickly (over years rather than decades) is almost icing on the cake.

I am certain that some people will vocally and perhaps even violently oppose this work, both because of an irrational fear of genetic engineering technology and because of a misplaced belief that eliminating mosquitoes will somehow damage the environment. The general consensus is that it will not. However, I strongly feel that even if there was minor collateral damage to the environment, it would be well worth that cost to prevent at least a million deaths a year.

Some would caution we should consider an act such as the deliberate extinction of a whole class of parasitic insects with great caution and take such steps only quite slowly. However, in a world where a child dies of malaria every 40 seconds or so, I think we should, if anything, be racing ahead as fast as we can possibly manage.

Now that we have the capacity to exterminate mosquitoes, not to do so strikes me as a gravely immoral act.

(*And now for the very simplified explanation.

Gene drive permits us to engineer organisms that have “non-Mendelian” inheritance — that is, among whom 100% of descendants carry a particular trait instead of only 50% in the first generation and a proportionately diminishing fraction thereafter.

In the current case, the notion would be to engineer mosquitoes all of whose descendants carry a “death trait” — for example, all of the female descendants of a given gene drive line might be sterile while males are unaffected. As those males mate in the population, they leave behind fertile male offspring but no fertile females. If sufficient males with this trait are released into the wild and breed, the mosquito population will eventually entirely inherit the trait, and, lacking fertile females, the population will crash and likely disappear.

A much more primitive form of this technique has been tried by the firm Oxitec using ordinary genetic engineering without a gene drive element. The Oxitec mosquitoes are all males, and have been engineered so all their offspring die early unless they’re fed a chemical that Oxitec only provides to the mosquitoes they raise in their factory. Since males do not feed on blood, there is little risk in releasing large numbers of males, and by releasing huge numbers of such engineered males in a geographic area, a large fraction of the matings that occur produce no descendants. Oxitec has already demonstrated the ability to crash mosquito populations in test areas where large numbers of males were released.

A gene drive would likely be vastly more effective still — unlike the Oxitec method, the released mosquitoes would continue to produce fertile male offspring that would in turn spread throughout a region on their own. Very quickly there would be few fertile females left in the mosquito population, and those few that remained would face very long odds on mating with males that did not carry the gene drive.)

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84 comments to Exterminate All Mosquitoes

  • My only concern would be mass extinction of the things that eat mosquitoes… presumably certain species of bat would be screwed… so I whilst I agree in principle, I think the extinction of any species needs to be done with exquisite care for fear of a knock-on effect.

  • andyinsdca

    Bats, frogs, birds, all kinds of creatures eat mosquitoes. while this is a visceral and understandable reaction, it’s not rational. It’d be the first domino of some very, very bad stuff.
    I note that stuff like this (malaria, zika, etc) only happen in 3rd world countries. Yes, we have a few reports of zika here in the US, but it’s from people who traveled south, not “native” infections. Seems like being in the 3rd world is a bigger hazard than a tiny bug.

  • Richard Thomas

    I believe that on examination, it turns out that those species that eat human feeding mosquitoes eat other things also. Non-human feeding mosquitoes at the least and often other species of insects and beyond.

    The ecosystem is a lot more resilient than we give it credit for. If there is the chance to delete this pernicious species, let’s have it. No one shed a tear for smallpox.

    For the “benefit of humanity” if you must but the shear annoyingness of mosquito bites is enough for me.

  • Laird

    The ecosystem is indeed extremely resilient, as Richard Thomas says. A biosphere is not static; it is constantly moving toward equilibrium, and the point of equilibrium is constantly fluctuating. The intentional eradication of a very few species of mosquitos would do it no serious or permanent harm, and would cause me no qualms whatsoever.

    But even short of that, all we really need to do is re-introduce the use of DDT in the third-world breeding grounds of these dangerous pests. This simple act would, by itself, save millions of lives annually. The “Silent Spring” hypothesis has long been proven to be grossly overstated, if not a complete fraud, yet still much of the developed world is held in its sway and thus imposes its irrationality onto those most vulnerable. Rachael Carson is responsible for more human deaths than Stalin or Hitler. I hope she is roasting in her own private circle of Hell.

  • mike

    There is another possible unintended consequence. It would give yet another excuse for governments to at once delay drainage and sanitation improvements whilst preventing anyone else from making such improvements.

    Last year we had a dengue outbreak clustered in Tainan city. Whilst all the media people wittered on predictably about climate change, nobody mentioned the drainage problem, the woefully inadequate garbage collection service and the persistent fly tipping which continues to this day.

  • Mr Ed

    I like Mike’s point, the key to dealing with disease for the ‘Third World’ is to stop being crap, i.e. Copy what works in more prosperous countries, like respect for private property, abatement of nuisances, civil peace, go for self-improvement and act in a way that maximises quality of life and survival chances. Many can be dragged down by a vile few, but we are all in that boat.

    More on the biology later, which is fascinating. Nice to hear from Perry M.

  • See my explanation after the end of this essay on how this might be done.*

    I was half hoping your solution was to indoctrinate the female mosquitos with Western feminism.

  • Mr Ecks

    It is a daft idea.

    If huge amounts of money are to be spent–let them be spent on upgrading medical treatment to the degree that ALL diseases can have their arses kicked. Then mossie-bites would be no more than an annoyance.

    And while we are at it, so vast a medical research campaign could go a long way to making anti-aging a reality also.

  • Martha

    The total extermination of a species need not be anything but beneficial. After all, that is precisely the outcome expected by the “greenest” among us when the species to eliminate is humanity. In fact, I cannot remember anyone ever proposing a single negative environmental impact resulting from the extinction of humanity.

  • It sounds like a great idea. Of course, socialism sounds like a great idea, which is why so many are cured of it only by experiencing it. I am less concerned at the idea of trying this idea that at a Bernie or a Corbyn getting elected, because I’m not so worried about ruining things for mosquitos than for humans – indeed, ruining things for mosquitos is rather the point (see the good joke in Tim’s comment above 🙂 ) – and the unintended-consequences dangers of genetic research are not quite as high as you’d think from reading science fiction. However, as Laird remarks, a biosystem is not static. If I thought the mindset of the people doing this was “This will work [because of course, nothing else will change, still less adapt, while it slowly percolates through the mosquito population] so nothing can go wrong” then I’d be worried. If instead, they were channelling the line from Valkyrie – “Remember, this is a military operation: nothing _ever_ goes according to plan” – so were monitoring for and _expecting_ divergences, then I’d feel happier about it.

    (Actually, I’d feel happier – or less unhappy – about a lot of government programmes if they were run by people who thought failure or divergence from expectations was even possible let alone probable.)

  • NickM

    Well, I have a dog in this fight. My parents worked in Zambia before I was even a glint in the eye she got dengue fever. My mother nearly died of it. If she had I wouldn’t be writing this because I wouldn’t be.

  • Lee Moore

    I’ve been thinking about the libertarian angles on this. Mosquitos are wild animals, but presumably a mosquito can become private property simply by appropriation from the wild. A dissenting mosquito lover, faced with Perry’s World Mosquito Extermination Plan, might therefore identify a patch of turf as mosquito friendly breeding grounds and acquire it, leaving its use unchanged. Or he might actually build an indoor mosquito farm, appropriate some mosquitos from the wild, and keep his pet mosquitos.

    Of course, there are dangers of externalities. Wild mosquitos would certainly leave his outdoor breeding grounds to pester other people. What is his liability ? He hasn’t actually created the negative externality – he has merely failed to co-operate in its elimination. And mosquitos might escape even from his indoor farm, where he might be said to be closer to having actually created the externality. Where does he stand now, liability-wise ? By liablity-wise I obviously mean “what ought the state be allowed to do to him under proper libertarian principles” rather than “what is the state allowed to do to him under current rules.”

    I confess to a certain instinctive nervousness about a program to exterminate all Xs in the world, run presumably by governments. It seems more reminiscent something the dark side would be suggesting. But I suppose it must depend on the circumstances.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t like mosquitos and would happily allow any amount of DDTing on my land. But it’s tricky to see how a program could be successful without compulsorily doing it on other people’s land.

  • Jacob

    “Exterminate all…”
    Any proposal or plan that starts with these words sounds to me not only delusional but creepy.

    It seems the problem of mosquitoes has been “solved” in the developed world by “conventional” (i.e. simple) methods.

    The problem persists in poor countries which also happen to be the tropic ones. The solution (to this and any other problem) is to get rich, so the problem is dealt with, like in the rich (developed) countries.

  • pete

    The Chinese once went on a sparrow killing frenzy and then found it was a big mistake.

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    I share Perry’s concerns. Working with software for many years has made me acutely aware that making changes to complex systems often has unintended – and adverse – effects. But I also agree with Laird’s comments about the robustness of ecosystems.

    A good compromise might be to start mosquito extermination in selected areas. If really bad things happen – like lots of other species start dying out – then simply stop. Should nothing adverse occur and it’s decided the infectious species of mosquitoes should be exterminated worldwide, a few specimens, or even just their DNA, could be stored somewhere, by way of an insurance policy.

  • I agree with most of the commenters that this is a bad idea. In fact, it’s the worst idea ever to be aired on Samizdata. I am an extreme, even doctrinaire, free-market libertarian. That doesn’t mean I agree with vandalising the ecosystem of our shared planet. One of the great advantages of modern technology, delivered to us by capitalism, is to enable us to do less harm to other living things, while improving our own living standards.

  • I share Perry’s concerns

    Which Perry? 😛

  • bloke in spain

    I would remind you. Nature abhors a vacuum. Some other creature will seek to occupy the evolutionary niche currently occupied by the mosquito.
    I give you: The bloodsucking vampire whale.
    You wouldn’t one of those landing on the back of your neck, would you?

  • Cal

    OT: good article here on how Sydney’s nightlife is being killed by regulators:
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/would-last-person-sydney-please-turn-lights-out-matt-barrie

  • CaptDMO

    Problems arise when you eradicate a specie’s natural predator, or introduce a species into a “new” area where it has none. Even “control” measures can result in “unexpected consequences”.
    Humane?
    Get over yourself.
    “for “the children”, SEE: The Trouble With Tribbles, maybe The Cat in the Hat and the Bathtub Ring.

  • Runcie Balspune

    The “Silent Spring” hypothesis has long been proven to be grossly overstated

    The Silent Spring hypothesis has actually no bearing on DDT use as a mosquito repellent*, it only applies when uses as a general insecticide, but the regulations that not only ban DDT wholesale, but ban or restrict imports from countries using DDT, is what has prevented its use. The tragedy on that story was because ill-conceived and unscientifically based regulations fueled by green hysteria never gave an inch to exemptions.

    As regards the main proposal, once could ask “can we reverse it?” Surely keeping a separate breeding population on standby would be an option. Doubles up as a biological weapon too – a plague on both your houses.

    But on the whole I agree with Laird, like with nuclear technology we have viable and instant solutions available now, it is only stupidity and statism that prevents us from using them.

    * I understand a wall spray of DDT keeps it mosquito free for a year as they actively avoid the stuff, even the ones who are resistant, thus avoiding night time feeding which is the major vector.

  • Paul Marks

    The Z virus is already spreading from person to person (via body fluids and so on) – but I agree as many of these insects should be killed as is practical and safe.

    The brain and nervous system problems that the Z virus causes do NOT include the savage desire to feast upon human flesh (internet rumours to the contrary).

    However, Brazil is a hopeless mess (even without the latest problem – which is now killing people in Colombia) so I am afraid that the summer Games will have to be cancelled.

  • Fraser Orr

    My thinking on this? First of all I think the danger of eliminating a species is really overplayed. I mean species die out all the time and it has narry a blip on the environment. Nature is very adaptable.

    However, I guess my concern for Perry M is this: who exactly do you expect to execute this plan? The government? The UN? There is a way to cock it all up. By the time it had got through the legislature the “Elimination of the Mosquito Pestilence on Humans” bill would have become “The Elimination of the Pestilence, Humans, by Mosquito”.

    Seems to me a much better, much more libertarian approach is a private local approach. In this case there is one extremely effective one, one that eliminated Malaria in the United States where it used to be endemic. Namely DDT. As someone above said Rachel Carson is responsible for the deaths of more people than any of the tyrannical monsters in the 20th century.

  • Ellen

    None of us mourn the eradication of smallpox. There still remain a zillion other diseases to plague us, if it turns out we need them. Likewise, how many species of mosquito are there? Figure which one causes the most human illnesses, then exterminate that species. Again, there remain quite a few other species of mosquito, if it should turn out the world needs them.

    There remains the specter of Australia. Introducing rabbits was a bad idea. Introducing a deadly rabbit disease was a decent idea, but it didn’t get them all, and they’re back. I don’t remember what cane toads were introduced to exterminate, but it was a Bad Idea.

    Still – who would miss one species of mosquito? Just be very careful about the unintended consequences.

  • mike

    “It seems the problem of mosquitoes has been “solved” in the developed world by “conventional” (i.e. simple) methods.”

    Actually, restricting the spread of mosquito-borne diseases is not just a matter of choosing conventional methods of drainage and sanitation. It is a matter of applying them, and that is what people in somewhat less developed countries like Taiwan are poor at doing for at least two reasons. The first is that the government is both poorly equipped and poorly incentivized to apply these methods. They have neither the information to do the job properly, nor is getting the information to do the job properly going to make the slightest difference to their electoral prospects (which are usually decided by identity politics). The second is that the people tend to have scant regard for anything that is not their own, and for which they are unlikely to be held responsible.

    So: local people miss the 3.45 p.m. municipal garbage truck because they are at work. Some of them miss the 7.50 p.m. one too. They then pile up their trash in a corner of the local park, or street. When the suggestion is raised that garbage be placed in wheelie bins, obviating the need to be physically present when the garbage truck comes, the idea is immediately scoffed at on the grounds that other people will simply dump their trash in your wheelie bin which will mean piles of trash on the street corner. Which is what we actually have now.

    They just sit back and immediately accept that what should be a fairly easy problem to solve is actually intractable. And this is after a big song and dance was made recently about preventing the spread of dengue fever by forcing people out of their homes – the only place that they actually seem to care about and for which actually effective market solutions (odor based repellents) are cheaply and easily available at every grocery store – so as to disinfect them with insecticide.

    As often, the least effective or most short term solutions are easiest for the government to apply, whereas the most effective, long term solutions involve a bit of work, cost a bit of money and possibly require people to think about second and third order consequences to their fly-tipping habits.

    And… we’ve just had a demonstration of a similar point this morning with an earthquake flattening what was most likely a poorly designed and constructed apartment building housing more than a hundred people and several businesses.

  • I mean species die out all the time and it has narry a blip on the environment

    The implications of the lesser spotted Pitcarn Island Macaw going extinct out are a bit different to having a major widely distributed and deeply embedded species like the mosquito die out. Maybe it can be done without causing serious unforeseen knock-on problems but that is a very big maybe, which is why I think any ‘species extinction’ option should be a last resort rather than something to be eagerly pursued if, as several other commenters have pointed out, there are other ways of greatly mitigating the scourge of mosquito borne diseases.

  • Mr Ed

    Lee Moore

    And mosquitos might escape even from his indoor farm, where he might be said to be closer to having actually created the externality. Where does he stand now, liability-wise ? By liablity-wise I obviously mean “what ought the state be allowed to do to him under proper libertarian principles” rather than “what is the state allowed to do to him under current rules.”

    In English law: Liability-wise, this could come under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, where keeping an unnatural accumulation on your land of a natural thing that is liable to escape puts you in strict liabilty.

    As for what the state ought to do, it is the law, not the state, in this civil matte,r and there is the common law crime of causing a public nuisance, with a potential life sentence as a common law offence.

  • Douglas2

    There are thousands of species of mosquito, only a few hundred of which pose a disease issue to humans or livestock. Targeted measures would be species specific, leaving plenty of room for the “good” mosquitos to keep carrying on their ecological role — as larvae they are ideal fish food, and convert the plentiful aquatic single-celled organisms into something nutritious and accessible to fish etc.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html

  • Targeted measures would be species specific…

    Provided that is actually true in practice, that is great.

  • Alisa

    so I hope that the summer Games will have to be cancelled

    There, fixed 😀

  • Mr Ed

    Frankly, the most likely outcome of this plan would be a population crash and a ‘bottleneck‘ for the mosquito species concerned, with a few female survivors as not every patch of the species’ range is likely to be reached and mutations and errors would be likely to render the drive not 100% effective. The upshot could be that the various viruses, amoebae etc. will also suffer a bottleneck as they will be less transmitted from host to vector and v.v.

    Which is still a very good thing.

    Unless of course, mosquitos have homeopathic effects.

  • Alisa

    It does sound great, but there other species that are far more damaging to humans than mosquitoes are. So, why not try it on politicians first?

  • Lee Moore

    Mr Ed : As for what the state ought to do, it is the law, not the state, in this civil matte,r and there is the common law crime of causing a public nuisance, with a potential life sentence as a common law offence.

    Over my head, I’m afraid. You’re obviously drawing some deep distinction between the state and the law. I’m familiar with the idea of a state whose judges choose its laws from the customs they observe. But laws that have nothing to do with the state, and which are not enforced by the state, are a null set as far as I’m concerned.

  • Mr Ed

    Lee,

    What the State might do is primarily political, whereas the common law could endure and be used without the state or state judges, although it is fair enough to say that at present that is an aspiration.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    In answer to various concerns above:

    PdeH: Note the link I’ve provided above about the question of whether eliminating mosquito species that prey on man would have adverse ecological consequences. The best studies say “no”. Note also that the majority of mosquitoes are living in places far from their places of origin, as many African mosquito species that carry malaria and the like are now found worldwide because man has unintentionally spread them around. They aren’t even native species, and there are no known predator species that depend primarily on A. aegypti and the like for food.

    Laird: DDT is expensive compared to gene drives. It is also not as effective. I am not going to dispute that DDT would have been a good thing ten years ago, but technology has now moved on.

    Jacob claims: “It seems the problem of mosquitoes has been “solved” in the developed world by “conventional” (i.e. simple) methods” — you are therefore unaware of the growing death toll from West Nile Virus in the United States year on year, not to mention dozens of other diseases that simmer at low burn here. We also have huge numbers of pet dogs and cats afflicted with heartworm. Malaria is gone, but only because the transmission chain was interrupted. Mosquitoes that can potentially spread disease are present in significant numbers in all 50 states. They can be controlled by conventional mechanisms but control is far from perfect. Best to get rid of the threat.

    Mr Ecks says: “If huge amounts of money are to be spent–let them be spent on upgrading medical treatment to the degree that ALL diseases can have their arses kicked” — the price of producing altered mosquitoes with gene drives to destroy the dozen most important mosquito species that prey on man would probably be in the single digit millions, not the double digit millions or billions. It is well within the price range of quite modest venture capital funding. After that, breeding and releasing the males would cost much less than most conventional spraying programs.

    Fraser Orr asks: “However, I guess my concern for Perry M is this: who exactly do you expect to execute this plan? The government? The UN?” — I think it could be handled by private subscription quite easily. Indeed, I know of many campgrounds in the US which spend small fortunes on mosquito eradication every year using pesticides — private companies providing gene-drive males to release in such places would be cheaper, so there’s even a market angle, as Oxitec (a private company!) has already learned.

  • Lee Moore

    Mr Ed : What the State might do is primarily political, whereas the common law could endure and be used without the state or state judges, although it is fair enough to say that at present that is an aspiration.

    Sure. In principle, there’s a valuable role for a customary body that issues rulings on common “law” ie custom. Folk might even agree to abide by its rulings, arbitration-style, in matters of contract. Though quite how it could apply to tort and crime – beyond mere declaration of wrong – is a mystery. But absent ENFORCEMENT it ain’t LAW even as an aspiration. An aspiration that a society could run itself with folk abiding by non binding rulings of a body with no enforcement powers beyond social pressure belongs on the same shelf with that fading away of the state under communism.

  • Mr Ed

    Lee,

    Let us aspire until we expire.

  • Mr Ed

    — I think it could be handled by private subscription quite easily.

    Indeed, I have a certificate to mark my contribution to the eradication of rats on South Georgia, the most successful vermin removal project there since Operation Paraquet.

  • Edward

    Laird wrote:

    But even short of that, all we really need to do is re-introduce the use of DDT in the third-world breeding grounds of these dangerous pests. This simple act would, by itself, save millions of lives annually. The “Silent Spring” hypothesis has long been proven to be grossly overstated, if not a complete fraud, yet still much of the developed world is held in its sway and thus imposes its irrationality onto those most vulnerable. Rachael Carson is responsible for more human deaths than Stalin or Hitler. I hope she is roasting in her own private circle of Hell.

    We shouldn’t underestimate the evil effect Ms Carson’s work has had on the human race (interesting that the left considers her a hero and Norman Borlaug, whose work has saved billions, as a villain).

    However, also influencing the withdrawal of DDT was the fact that insect populations were developing resistance to it in the last few years of its deployment. If we’d kept using DDT we’d pretty be much in the same situation we are now. But at least now we can use DDT in selective cases when required, and it’ll do the job it did back in the day: Knock down the mozzies for a fair old while. Whereas if we’d kept using it, it would now be worthless as practically all insects would be immune to it. Evolution’s a bugger like that. So perhaps not a bad idea to put that shot back in the locker after all…

  • Runcie Balspune

    Edward, DDT can be used as an insect repellent, it’s effects continue even if the species is resistant.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    Interesting post.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Again, whether DDT is wonderful or evil, technology has moved on.

    Sterile male technology permitted the complete elimination of the screw-worm fly in North America. Even Oxitec’s quite primitive non-gene drive technology has shown the ability to do similar things for mosquitoes. Gene drive will be even cheaper and more effective than Oxitec’s current work in the long run (since gene self propagates through a population via non-Mendelian inheritance).

    DDT is broad spectrum and cannot drive a particular species to extinction, while gene drive attacks only the species you target, will be very hard for a species to develop permanent resistance to (yes, mutants may arise which break the existing drive, and you then introduce another edited line with a new, different, drive to counteract that — you can even add several drives at once to prevent single mutations from being inherited efficiently), etc.

    DDT was last year’s battle. As with arguments about whether the state should regulate farriers or canal barges, it is no longer at the center of things.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Because of constant high wind, there are no flying insects at all on Kerguelen, a large, subantarctic archipelago in the South Indian Ocean. And there are a considerable number of introduced mammalian land species (caribou, sheep, cats, rabbits, rats) as well as native seals and birds. Also a permanent (French) research station with around 100 inhabitants.

    All that and no mosquitos, and apparently no problems stemming from a lack of them, in a fairly extensive and complex ecosystem.

    Of course, there’s still the question of what ethical Space Aliens would think of us if we went around exterminating inconvenient species…. ;^)

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    “Of course, there’s still the question of what ethical Space Aliens would think of us if we went around exterminating inconvenient species…”

    Of course, we’ve been doing this de facto for millennia. Sometimes (as with the extinction of virtually all the megafauna in North America) this action wasn’t even for a good reason, but the ecosystem adjusted. Sometimes (see the extirpation of most large predators from Europe) there was a good reason for it, and the ecosystem survived, though there remains considerable regret about it. In a few cases, such as the wide scale fall-back of Yersinia pestis and the actual extirpation of Rinderpest, I think few people are particularly upset about what was done.

    Mosquito species, unlike wolves but quite like Variola, seem to have little sentience or capacity for emotion, and kill huge numbers of humans. The situation seems much more clear cut here. From an ethical point of view, I think all the mosquitoes in the world aren’t worth a million deaths a year — this is not mere inconvenience. I would never trade a human life for a mosquito or even a human-equivalent mass of mosquitoes. I see little ethical problem with leaving their only trace in the form of computer stored DNA sequences that future scientists may wish to study for novel proteins.

  • Mr Black

    Perry M, you are of course obviously correct but I enjoy watching the sophisticated, intellectual set tying themselves in knots with emotionalism and special pleading to deny it.

  • lucklucky

    Playing God and unintended consequences. We don’t know all.

  • Rich Rostrom

    If this project can actually get some traction, I would watch the opposition very carefully. The usual green-brained idiots will object, but they may get a lot of covert funding from the insect repellent industry.

    If there are no mosquitoes that bite humans, then the market for OFF! etc collapses. Well, maybe not “collapses” – there are still blackflies, ticks, and other biting pests – but greatly reduced.

    One wonders what other species could be similarly attacked. Ticks? Hookworms and other intestinal parasites? Toxoplasma? Could the technique be used to eradicate invasive species? (As a Great Lakes dweller, I am worried about Asian carp and zebra mussels.)

  • Myno

    Exterminate all human-hunting mosquitos, starting with Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, neither of which is native to 99%+ of its present range. Denge has reappeared on my own home turf (Big Island of Hawai’i), and I want it gone. The same mosquito is vector for Zika, so when (not if) it arrives, there will be rational fear and anger. Just being 1st World isn’t sufficient protection. DDT would help only temporarily; Perry M is correct in that assessment.

    It is of course wise to study consequences, trying to reduce the count that eventuate in the Unintended and Unexpected categories. And yes, extinction is forever, so especial care is called for… but Aedes has outlived our patience. If we take that long look, and there is some species that depends on Aedes etceteri, and several on that, and a whole chain of critters pass but the biome as a whole is not greatly threatened… I’m all for calling that collateral damage. We ought to have the courage to defend our turf, and not to lightly take so many lives lost at the point of evolution’s spear. We’re better than that.

  • Mr Black

    We’ve extinguished who knows how many thousands of species so far and the planet hasn’t blown up, getting rid of one more that actually does us serious harm as a species seems to be a rather amazing achievement, and if it took 1000 more species with it, we still wouldn’t notice.

  • Perry M, you are of course obviously correct but I enjoy watching the sophisticated, intellectual set tying themselves in knots with emotionalism and special pleading to deny it.

    Try not to be a complete dick, many of the concerns being expressed are of the perfectly reasonable “unexpected consequences” variety. The fact some studies have said it will be no big deal is nice, and it would be even nicer if it proves to be true & the ‘bad’ mosquitoes really can be targeted (as I am more-or-less a magnet for mosquitoes) without exterminating every kind of Mosquito everywhere (the title of this article is “Exterminate ALL Mosquitoes”, which would not be a good idea at all). But some studies have also said anthropogenic global warming is a real thing too, which I rather doubt.

    But if this could work as intended… great. But that is a big “if”.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    PdeH: I titled it as I did because “We should push all mosquito species that prey on humans, a small fraction of the 3500 known species of mosquito, into complete extinction using targeted gene drives” would have been a tad on the long side. (My antic muse also prefers to court controversy.)

    About the more substantive issue of unintended consequences:

    Doubtless there will be some, possibly even some that cause some minor discomfort to the human race.

    We might substantially reduce the population of a few predatory species that have come to depend on these creatures for food, and there might be a few species of unusual plants that depend on this small fraction of the total species of mosquito for pollination. The unintended consequences should be well understood: they will not cause earthquakes or the collapse of whole ecosystems, and any predator that we depend on to reduce other insect populations clearly is not solely dependent on mosquitoes for food.

    (Most of the species of mosquito we are talking of are also not native to most of the range they are found in — the human race spread them worldwide. A. aegypti used to be found in a small range in Africa, not on nearly every continent.)

    So, we might, say, reasonably foresee the possibility of the unintended extinction of some unusual species of African bat or South American wildflower. We should not reasonably or even remotely expect, say, the desertification of all of Europe.

    Now let us consider what we get in exchange.

    Mosquitoes are one of the few things left in the modern world more dangerous than the state. More people were killed in the 20th century by mosquito-borne disease than in all the wars we had plus all state-sponsored violence, including the depredations of communism. That’s quite a feat!

    Even now, at least a million people a year are dying from mosquito-born disease. I say “at least” because that’s just the conservative estimate for one disease, malaria. Accurate numbers for the total death toll are hard to come by. I would presume the total death toll is significantly above that number.

    This is also ignoring the devastating non-fatal effects many of these illnesses have on the hundreds of millions of people who become infected every year. Zika, for example, appears to cause birth defects as you know. Look for photographs online of what lymphatic filariasis, aka elephantiasis, does to people. Millions have their health permanently damaged every year by many of the viral infections.

    We are also sadly vulnerable to future epidemics even in the first world. What broke malaria in the first world was much more that the chain of transmission was broken than that we eliminated mosquitoes here. West Nile virus is now slowly spreading through the United States and is killing as it does so, though the fact that the death toll is “merely” in the hundreds a year right now has kept it from being major news.

    On the question of how targeted our new technologies are, that is the beauty of them. We are now in a position to precisely target individual mosquito species. Gene drive, unlike insecticides, works via the reproductive mechanism of an individual species — it cannot “jump” without active intentional laboratory work to a new species because mosquitoes of differing species do not interbreed. (Indeed, that’s part of the definition of “species”).

    Unlike insecticides and other blunt instruments, we now have a tool that will let us destroy only those species of mosquito that are disease vectors without touching other insect species at all. Against the reduction in the food supply for some other species, we have millions of human lives at stake.

    Unless it is reasonable to expect the consequences will kill millions, I think we have a moral obligation to see this done.

  • Unless it is reasonable to expect the consequences will kill millions, I think we have a moral obligation to see this done.

    Whilst it is a nice idea, I do not think “we” have any obligation at all to do any such thing. But I certainly agree that if it can be done without accidentally causing a cascade of ecological disaster when the targeted means turn out to be not quite as narrowly targeted as hoped… well yeah, if it really can be done as intended, I have no sentimental attachment to those nasty little fuckers. I have “concerns” about the notion rather than “objections” to it.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    I agree that the “we” is problematic. Rather than getting into an extended discussion on ethics, let me make a much more limited restatement of my claim.

    I cannot claim that anyone is obligated to spend their own resources helping anyone else, but I do claim that standing in the way of deployment of such technologies will clearly result in vast numbers of deaths happening that would otherwise have been prevented. I also claim that the cost is so low that private means could easily fund the deployment of such technologies.

    And yes, gene drives are as species dependent (and thus as “narrow” in this sense) as an intervention gets.

  • APL

    “However, it is likely that at least a million people die a year from malaria alone.”

    In the last thirty years the human population of the planet has doubled and some to 7billion. It’s probably fair to say that six billion of those aren’t contributing that much of significance to, … anything really.

    So, yea, lets add a few more million people a year and invite them all into Europe, the USA and Canada.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    “APL”: I presume you’re a member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, then? I always like to see people who advocate such changes lead the way, and remember, you need not wait, the means to reduce your burden upon the earth’s precious resources is easily at hand if you want it to be.

    Myself, I’m strongly convinced by Julian Simon’s claims in The Ultimate Resource — he contended that natural resources are not, in fact, becoming less available with time, and that the real limitation on mankind’s prosperity is the scarcity of human minds. More population means ever greater division of labor and ever greater prosperity.

    The evidence of history was that Simon was right. Simon won his famous bet with Paul Erlich, of course, and in spite of claims made for many decades, it appears the “more people is better” camp and not the “we’re all doomed from overpopulation” side is correct.

    But again, if you disagree, you have the means at hand to demonstrate that you have the courage of your convictions. I understand the Final Exit people have excellent information at hand to aid you.

  • Lee Moore

    Veering wildly off topic, and onto the more usual subjects of extermination plans – humans – I just caught the last fifteen minutes of a BBC 4 programme about the “Tsar’s lost daughters”

    It would be quite wrong to say that it was a pro Bolshevik travelogue – there were commentators who did actually use the word “murder.” And yet the closing voiceover sat me bolt upright with astonishment – an electric dose of Beebthink that even a hardened Beebaphobe such as myself was unprepared for. I even sought out the video and copied out the words for posterity :

    “The sisters are remembered as martyrs of a bloody revolution but they were also the innocent victims of a mother and father so divorced from reality that they unwittingly condemned their beloved family to a terrible fate”

    It has to be said that a large proportion of the millions of humans killed in the last hundred years by people with a Grand Plan for Society kinda drifted into their murders in an innocent bumbling sort of way, with no real idea of what was coming, or why, and no understanding that there really were people like their murderers crawling about the Earth. But even so, it’s a bit tasteless to season one’s comments about murder with asides about the general cluelessness of the victims. Isn’t it ?

  • Mr Ed

    More population means ever greater division of labor and ever greater prosperity.

    Perry, that is an over-simplification. It depends upon the availability of capital and the political, legal and personal situations arising from that population, and it very much depends upon who those individuals are. If say, 3,000,000 souls turn up and they are economically active, non-destructive adults, able and willing to work, trade and save, then ‘yes’, all other things being equal, there will be more prosperity.

    But if 3,000,000 socialists turn up in your State and start living off others, and hampering them in their economic activities, then there will not be more labour, nor will there be more prosperity.

    Theory is not enough, reality has to keep up. One should apply methodological individualism to the question of what benefit or ‘dis-benefit’ any change in population will bring. We can’t always know, but sometimes a fairly good guess can be made.

  • Mr Ed

    Re: the ‘Exterminate All Mosquitoes’ title, I took it as poetic licence, with clearly an implied reference to the vectors.

    I am, however, reminded of Lenin:

    Lenin himself proposed to “purge the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects.” we should note that Perry intended to be taken literally, unlike Lenin, for whom people were the harmful insects, but the purge was real enough.

  • APL

    “I always like to see people who advocate such changes lead the way, and remember, you need not wait, the means to reduce your burden upon the earth’s precious resources is easily at hand if you want it to be.”

    Not at all. I rather like the comfort, good health and pleasures afforded by a modern Western European civilization.

    We have now been ‘helping’ the rest of the world for about a hundred and fifty years,all we seem to have managed to do is increase their population and make no impact on their capacity to run a modern western technological society.

    But in return, ‘resources’ aside, what is a ‘good’ population for the planet? Is seven billion enough, presumably you don’t think so because you want to ‘save’ more.

    Go ahead old chum, just do it on your own dime.

  • APL

    “the real limitation on mankind’s prosperity is the scarcity of human minds. More population means ever greater division of labor and ever greater prosperity.”

    Yep, I’ll just post this here

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Mr. Ed said: “Perry, that is an over-simplification. It depends upon the availability of capital and the political, legal and personal situations arising from that population”

    In the world of 1925 or so, when the world population was two billion or so, we had no suction cup attachable waterproof rechargeable bluetooth speakers for your shower. In the world today, with a world population of about seven billion, not only is there dramatically better food security for most of the population, but there are also electronic devices like that which you can buy for $11 on amazon.com.

    Consider the vast and astonishing infrastructure needed to construct a device of greater complexity than any machine of 1925 just so that I can listen to podcasts in the shower and provide it to me for $11. There are literally millions of people involved in the supply chain, many with amazingly specialized roles like the design of injection mold release mechanisms or the planning of pick and place robots for the shipping warehouses at Amazon.

    Part of the difference between the periods is capital accumulation, part an increase in knowledge, but part is also that, at one time, the division of labor simply did not allow the degree of specialization that permitted some people to devote their lives to all these myriad time consuming tasks. There are tasks someone can devote oneself to in a world of 7 billion that one of 1 billion cannot support.

    When I read even a single issue of “Nature” or “Science”, I’m struck by the raw size required of a society where people can devote their lives to such narrow and complicated pursuits as (to pick one example) trying to tweak adeno-associated virus into a gene therapy vector.

    I look forward to what a world of 20 billion is capable of, especially one where we make room for the victims of third world dictatorships in places with good rule of law and existing high levels of capital accumulation so that they, too, can be productive and help forge the amazing world we are entering in to.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    APL writes, in response to my note that if he feels population is a burden that he can reduce his burden on the world: “Not at all. I rather like the comfort, good health and pleasures afforded by a modern Western European civilization.”

    Ah, then you are merely claiming that although your life is worth being lived, we should assure that millions continue to die elsewhere because you, somehow, believe this to be of benefit to you. They are, after all, mere vermin, and their deaths by disease keep them from interfering in your, much more important, existence.

    I wonder, though, why it is that the millions elsewhere should not decide to invert this formula and conclude that their lives are truly the important ones and that your life is disposable to them? Perhaps they will conclude that the surplus European population leads to negative interference in their lives and choose to find more and more interesting ways to rid the world of that

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    “APL” writes: “We have now been ‘helping’ the rest of the world for about a hundred and fifty years,all we seem to have managed to do is increase their population and make no impact on their capacity to run a modern western technological society.”

    I suggest that you watch this fascinating talk by Hans Rosling and then explain why his data, which completely contradict your claims, should be ignored. (Rosling’s data are all on line, and I’m looking forward to your detailed debunking.)

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Alisa, whilst I agree in principle (even one politician is one too many), how could we carry out such a polly-culling operation? Unlike mossies, the pollies might notice, and take evasive action.

  • AngryTory

    Lenin himself proposed to “purge the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects.” we should note that Perry intended to be taken literally, unlike Lenin, for whom people were the harmful insects, but the purge was real enough.

    While there are clearly potential risks for ecosystems with extinguishing mosquitoes, or even as Alisa suggests

    why not try it on politicians first?

    we could cull all the leftists with absolutely no risks whatsoever.

  • AngryTory

    We have now been ‘helping’ the rest of the world for about a hundred and fifty years

    more like 500 years…

  • APL

    Perry Metzger (New York, USA): “I wonder, though, why it is that the millions elsewhere should not decide to invert this formula and conclude that their lives are truly the important ones and that your life is disposable to them?”

    They did. They occupied Europe, enslaved the subjugated population, force-ably moved whole ethnic groups from one geographical location to another. And finally, before the West was in a position to oppose them, carried out a genocide among the Armenians.

    Perry Metzger: “then you are merely claiming that although your life is worth being lived, we should assure that millions continue to die elsewhere because you,”

    No. What a silly thing to say. But it’s a part with the other silly thing you have said, more humans mean more wealth. Pakistan and India, and yes China too, stand to refute your assertion.

  • Mr Ed

    Ah Perry M,

    Such an unartful dodge of the issue.

  • John in cheshire

    It’s my understanding that this zika virus was discovered in Africa in the 1940s and registered by the Rockerfellerr organisation. I’m also sure that I’ve read somewhere that the Bill Gates organisation has acquired the rights to it. If so, my thoughts would be 1. How does a virus from Africa get to South America and then suddenly spread so rapidly and 2. Why would Bill Gates need to own the rights to a deadly virus?

  • Laird

    John in Cheshire, I call BS. I’d like to see a citation to some authority for your assertion that Bill Gates “owns the rights” to the Zika virus. I understand that it is possible to copyright newly-created bioengineered organisms, but I very much doubt that anyone can “own the rights” to a naturally-occurring one.

  • Pakistan and India, and yes China too, stand to refute your assertion.

    Really? How is that? I look forward to some tortured logic as you explain how that works.

  • Mr Ed

    Could not Microsoft engineer a mosquito population that crashes at crucial moments?

    Just suggesting a short-cut for the good Mr Gates.

  • Laird

    Lee Moore offered the name “Mosquito Extermination Plan”. It seems to me that this is a far more felicitous use of the acronym “MEP” than is its current use.

  • APL

    “How is that? I look forward to some tortured logic as you explain how that works.”

    I suppose Perry only those that don’t work in the financial services sector might have a clue what the real economy is like. But anyway…

    China hasn’t created wealth, America has outsourced its middle class industrial jobs to low cost totalitarian labour in third world countries.

    China is by the way busy stealing Western intellectual property. There probably isn’t a single innovation out of China that wasn’t first thought of in the US.

    China being a totalitarian regime has squandered resources in the rush to modernize, there are new cities that have next to no population and no jobs. A significant fraction of Chinese GDP is fiction.

    And now that the Western FIRE bubble economy is finally falling apart,China’s economy will collapse too.

    Unfortunately for the West, just as we need stability, we with get chaos and Middle eastern insurgents.

    Well done the open borders mob.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Apropos of this discussion, today MIT Technology Review posted an article entitled: “We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes”.

    As would be expected, it largely discusses the controversy around the use of such technologies, though it does note that (quite reasonably) there’s increasing public pressure to do something about dangerous disease vectors.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Having read this discussion and considered the arguments, I find Perry M convincing. I want to help kill mosquitoes. Where do I send my money?

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Rob: an interesting question. I don’t think such a charity yet exists, but it should. Something to be pondered.

  • Myno

    Kickstarter, anyone?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    That’s what I was thinking, Myno.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Kickstarter banned campaigns involving producing and delivering genetically modified organisms after someone ran a kickstarter for glow-in-the-dark GMO plants.

    There are alternatives of course, but one requires a specific project that’s ready to launch. Several teams have, of course, already produced mosquitoes with suitable gene drives. The right thing (likely) would be to team with one of them and a company like Oxitec and fund them for an experiment in getting rid of a vector like A. aegypti in an island nation.

  • Doug Jones

    The Screwworm was eradicated in the US in the 1960s by breeding millions of male flies, sterilizing them with ionizing radiation, and releasing them into the wild to produce infertile eggs. It required breeding prodigious numbers of flies, a peak of 200 million per *week* in 1972.

    Screwworms have been eliminated all the way down to Nicaragua, I’m not sure if the program is continuing into South America.

    http://www.fao.org/docrep/u4220t/u4220T0a.htm
    http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/timeline/worm.htm

  • Mr Ed

    A former colleague of mine’s father lived in north Sussex, and he was struck down with what turned out to be a rare tropical eye disease. After exhaustive tests, the condition was identified, and it was (the name I don’t think I ever knew) a condition that was caused by an amoebae carried in a tropical insect. He was asked where he had been in the world, and he had not been in any tropical zone nor anywhere near the vector’s habitat. The conclusion of the doctors from studying his lifestyle was that the most likely explanation was that out jogging one evening he may well have got the bug in his eye after it flew out of an aircraft at Gatwick airport. Now that’s very unlucky, but it illustrates the problem of ridding the world of an insect is a heck of a task as a few can pop up almost anywhere.

    I vaguely remember some claim of a tropical mosquito-borne disease reaching the USA from a shipload of car tyres from Taiwan in the 1980s.

    It will be a long, hard slog.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Doug Jones: The screw-worm fly was a horrible pest before it was (largely) eradicated, and the effort required was pretty large. That said, using fairly primitive methods compared to what gene drive would allow, they managed to do it. It also (not surprisingly) had no obvious impact on the ecosystems other than a positive one.

    That effort was (I believe) the inspiration for Oxitec’s current work, which again does not (yet) use gene drive.

    Mr. Ed: I’m not sure how hard the slog would be given gene drive. Gene drive is a remarkably powerful tool. We may have to tune the surrounding methods to get it to be maximally effective of course, but we seem to be a clever species.