Fighting Mosquitos

by ChristianKl1 min read16th Oct 201473 comments


Personal Blog

According to Louie Helm eradicating a species of mosquitoes could be done for as little as a few million dollar.

I don't have a few million dollar lying around so I can't spend my own money to do it. On the other hand, I think that on average every German citizen would be quite willing to pay 1€ per year to rid Germany of mosquitoes that bite humans.

That means it's a problem of public action. The German government should spend 80 million Euro to rid Germany of Mosquitos. That's an order of magnitude higher than the numbers quoted by Louie Helm).

The same goes basically for every country or state with mosquitos.

How could we get a government to do this without spending too much money ourselves? The straight forward way is writing a petition. We could host a website and simultaneously post a petition to every relevant parliament on earth.

How do we get attention for the petition? Facebook. People don't like Mosquitos and should be willing to file an internet petition to get rid of them. I would believe this to spread virally. The idea seems interesting enough to get journalists to write articles about it. 

Bonus points:

After we have eradicated human biting mosquitoes from our homelands it's quite straightforward to export the technology to Africa. 

Does anyone see any issues with that plan?

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(Please take this as constructive, as I very much want to see the global eradication of biting mosquitoes occur.)

I think this specific proposal (an online petition/Facebook activism) is naive and likely counter-productive. I feel like I should be docked several thousand Initiative Points for saying this, but please don't do as you propose.

For starters, you cannot say "mosquitoes" - as others have pointed out, there are ~3500 separate mosquito species, only ~100 bite humans, and only several dozen transmit disease. Narrowness is a virtue here, and this level of biological imprecision could alienate potential allies who will take you as reckless and uninformed.

(A related point is that the most promising interventions for eradication (like the sterile insect technique) are species specific, so it makes sense to start with the highest-priority target. Because [complex chain of reasoning to fill in later], I think aedes albopictus is likely the best bet.)

Also, I don't think country-level eradication plans (even for a single species) have the slightest chance of working long-term due to persistent re-invasion risk. A continent- or hemisphere-scale plan would be required, which... (read more)

-1ChristianKl6yI don't see any reason to only target those that transmit diseases. Target ones that are simply annoying because they string the average person, gives everyone a clear reason to support the proposal. There are also people with allergies or who simply don't heal the stinged area very well. If you have to continue paying a few million each year to keep the mosquito population near zero that's no problem for any industrialized country if there's public will. Don't worry as far as biological imprecision goes. I don't invest the kind of effort required for being precise for a LW post to explore the idea but I would certainly invest the necessary effort if I wrote an actual petition and tried to make it viral. I also made a choice against immediately crossposting to the effective altruism board or other venues to be able to iterate based on feedback. According to the map on Wikipedia we don't have any aedes albopictus in Germany but 4 neighboring countries have them. That means that it's not a valid target for German activism. Otherwise do you disagree with that map?
0XFrequentist6yThis is a good point - in fact, a distinction is usually drawn between "nuisance" and "disease vector" mosquito control (they can involve very different operations), and I've heard very knowledgeable people say that the only way to maintain public support for a control program is if there's a strong nuisance component. You may be right on this, but note that I never contended otherwise (albopictus is both an efficient disease vector and a major nuisance). Oh sure, but that's not eradication! There are lots of mosquito population suppression programs around the world, many paid for with public funds (particularly in areas with lots of outdoor tourism and a strong local business influence in municipal politics). Programs like this work at even vastly sub-country spatial scales, but as you say you need to keep doing them year in year out. Part of the beauty of eradication is no longer needing ongoing investment. Good! Well, species distribution maps are notoriously tricky to get right, but suppose it's right. The beauty of albopictus as a target is it's a highly invasive species, happy to set up shop anywhere a little pot of water with some organic residue can be found (and perhaps an annual mean temperature >11C, though I'm not convinced by the data on this). I would imagine Germany is at risk of invasion, which is an awesome opportunity for activism - (almost) no one minds local eradication of an invasive species!
0Emile6yIn addition, if you target all human-biting mosquitoes, you get better information on whether the program is still effective, just ask people to report any mosquito bites.
2XFrequentist6yOne issue is the same intervention doesn't necessarily affect both. For example, where I live West Nile virus is transmitted primarily by Culex pippiens mosquitoes, while the most abundant nuisance mosquito is Ochlerotatus stimulans. Controlling one species will not greatly affect the other (they breed in radically different conditions). It's not a matter of scaling up operations; you need an entirely different strategy, with commensurate increase in operating costs, complexity, potential failure points, etc etc. Give me unlimited resources and global remit and I'll take them all out, absent this prioritisation becomes necessary.

I'm a little cautious about deliberately eliminating a species, even a harmful to humans one. The environment is a complex system, and sticking our monkey hands in and pulling leavers can backfire in unpredicted ways.

What other environmental effects do the mosquitoes have? Do they control some other pest species? Are they food for something larger? Does the additional infection vector of mosquito bites significantly improve the general immune system functions of humans or other species bitten by these mosquitoes?

This type of objection, more than the financial cost, would be the main obstacle to overcome.

Eradicating any organism would have serious consequences for ecosystems — wouldn’t it? Not when it comes to mosquitoes, finds Janet Fang.

— "A world without mosquitoes"

(Louie links that in his post, but it's only one link out of 14, so I am rescuing it.)

2XFrequentist6yJust some epistemic hygiene: Janet Fang is a journalist, this quote is from a (good) non-scientific article, and the basis for this statement is a collection of (mostly expert) opinions. I happen to share this opinion, but I don't think this quote should be given very much weight in anyone's risk evaluation.

There are 3,500 different kinds of mosquitos and only 100 of them bite humans. To the extent that mosquitos are food for something larger the mosquitos species that don't bite humans can do the job.

I'm not aware of research showing improved immune systems because of mosquito bites.

3hyporational6yHow large is the population of the problem species compared to the population of the benign species? There probably won't be more mosquitoes of the benign species if we eradicate the problem species, unless we start to farm the nice kinds of mosquitoes or something. Also the problem species might behave more predictably to certain predators than than the benign species, and populate certain niches that have certain predators that are used to have them around.
4ChristianKl6yGiven that the whole process is about farming mosquitos, producing a few extra of the nice mosquitoes might be worked into the plan for reasonable extra cost. Replacing the bad mosquitos with nice one's is also likely to make it harder for bad mosquitos to come back because their niche is filled.
8Gunnar_Zarncke6yI'm also very cautious about manipulating our complex environment without really understanding what is going on. But in this case, after careful reading of the post (where it is explicitly mentioned to keep healthy mosquitoe populations in the lab until sure) and Wikipedia [] I tend to agree that this would reduce human suffering without noticable environmental impact. Apparently there even have been studies to the effect: I still upvote your post because you do name a few points that are all not addressed by the article. And there could be more which are plausibly problematic.
0XFrequentist6ySleeping sickness is transmitted by the Tsetse fly, which is not a mosquito. Even ignoring this I'm unsure what the effect on sleeping sickness has to do with environmental impact - this is the target effect of the program, no?
7[anonymous]6yAre you more than one million human deaths per year of cautious?
1Capla6yIf removing some critical element of an ecosystem has a chance of triggering a complete ecological collapse that, for instance, wipes our human food chain (the way I imagine a total and sudden extinction of pollination agents might), then yes: I don't want to accidentally kill billions trying to save millions. I don't know if this is generally plausible, or if it is a significant concern in this particular situation, but I certainly think it cause to be cautious until I have more information. That said, lives are being lost, right now, while we're being cautious.
0trifith6yNo, I am not. I personally rate the probability of catastrophic negative effects of this action as significantly lower than the probability of any negative effects, and the probability of no negative effects. I am also speaking from a position of ignorance, and I don't like making decisions from ignorance. I don't know what the ill effects would be, but the benefit is clear. If more cheap information is readily available, I want it (and some has been provided). If some amount of expensive evidence would increase my estimate of catastrophic effects, and that evidence can be clearly defined and gathered, I want it. If only vague, hard to measure risks remain, I say do it.
6[anonymous]6yCase in point: the Four Pests Campaign [].
2Azathoth1236yWell, three out four parts of the campaign went well. We could start with a pilot program in a limited area to see if the pest being eliminated is more like sparrows. If it is, we stop it and the sparrows repopulate the region. If it isn't we expand.
3solipsist6yHumans and domesticated animals make up roughly 98% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass []. I were looking for to effectively minimize humans ecological impact, mosquitos would not be where I would begin.

For the U.S. we could craft messages for both the Red and Blue tribes.

To convince Blues let's say that opposing eradicating the biting mosquitoes is racist since mosquitoes kill so many Africans, and that Reds don't want us to kill mosquitoes because they fear African population growth.

To convince Reds say that mighty American technology can cheaply crush the disgusting disease-carrying bloodsuckers, and Blues oppose killing mosquitoes because they love the environment more than people.

I think appealing to personal self interest of people hating to be stuck by mosquitos is more likely to mobilize people instead of trying to go after Red/Blue tribes.

3buybuydandavis6yOr we could see that sometimes we actually have shared interests, and act on them.
0HungryHobo6yIn a perfect world. But tribalism is a tough nut to crack. sometimes people will oppose interventions for serious problems largely because the other tribe is in favour.
-1ChristianKl6yJames argues that we should specifically play into tribalism.
1buybuydandavis6yWhich, although I initially pooh poohed it, could be a transformative idea. Are there any teams and competitions in effective altruism? Rankings? Keeping track of who is winning? Rivalries? I've been playing Ingress for a while, and all the effort both sides are putting in for nothing nags at me. Time spent on sports, or politics, nags at me. If we harnessed that "team spirit" toward actually producing value in the world, that would make a very different world. Altruism Sport. Go team go. Rah Rah Rah. And back to James, sure, you'd probably want to appeal to the Red team, appeal to the Blue team, and also appeal to the antidivisive We as well. Play all the messages to all the markets.
7James_Miller6yIf it is transformative, Scott Alexander [] deserves the credit.
-1ChristianKl6yProviding we actually do work on the right projects and don't pick the wrong battles.

You might be able to crowdsource the money.

You're not allowed to kill members of an endangered species. You could try killing them all off before the paperwork gets through, but I suspect that wouldn't go over very well.

It seems like it would be easier to start with Africa, where the species is dangerous to humans and killing it off is more reasonable, and then try to convince other countries to use the technology just to reduce annoyances.

You're not allowed to kill members of an endangered species.

More precisely, you're not allowed to kill members of species your government has designated as endangered.

If the government agrees to your program of eliminating mosquitoes, I don't see many legal problems there. On the other hand, if you don't, I'm pretty sure you won't be allowed to proceed.

2ChristianKl6ySince 1999 Mosquitos [] killed at least half the amount of Americans as 9/11. Freakonomics said that an American life is worth something between 1 and 10 million dollar for purposes of public policy. It seems like a cost effective intervention for reducing deaths in the US.
7[anonymous]6y(Am I the only one to whose System 1 “the amount of Americans [killed on] 9/11” suggests ‘meh, probably many fewer than die in car accidents every year’, rather than ‘you should be outraged by this!’?)
4ChristianKl6yIf I remember right from Freakonomics if the US government can prevent a car death for 1 million dollar they usually want to prevent the death. Even in that reference class this seems like good policy.
4LawrenceC6yNot sure about the number in Freakonomics, but according to the Department of Transportation's 2013 Memorandum [], the department values a life at $9.1 million 2012 dollars.
0ChristianKl6yI choose to cite lower bar number, but if you multiply $9.1 million with 1600 cases you get >15 billion and that's three order of magnitude of what eradicating would cost. That means "you should be outraged by this!" ;)
0ChristianKl6yI would guess that there are bio-safety laws besides the endangered species list that come into play when you do interventions on that scale. Even if laws on the books don't already exist paperwork can be fast if the bureaucracy things you are messing with them. You need the buy in of the power that be.
[-][anonymous]6y 3

I'm pretty sure this amount could be raised on kickstarter.

2ChristianKl6yThat means I would mean that you actually have to build the requisite organisation to put the project into place. On the other hand writing petitions or even a referendum is easier. Lastly I doubt that you can legally do this without special government permission in any country, so you need to engage the government anyway.
5[anonymous]6yRight, but you could develop the capability. Asking the government for millions of dollars to do feasibility research is quite different from asking permission to push a button. A more pragmatic approach might be to just do it and ask forgiveness instead. Mosquito-borne diseases kill millions each year. One child every 40 seconds*. Do you really fear a hostile response from eliminating the mosquito? You'd be irreproachable. Nobel prizes would be awarded. (The more frightening risks are what would happen if this same technology were applied to, say, wheat, corn, or cows.) * []
0ChristianKl6yIf you have a few million dollar yourself that might be true. On the other hand running a kickstarter campaign for this idea and then managing the whole thing is outside of my capabilities. On the other hand hosting a website and writing a petition isn't. I even have some media contacts from my time in Quantified Self. I think that there are enough people who really hate mosquitos to produce enough political pressure if those people can be convinced that we can simply buy the result for 1€ of their tax money. They might even spent more money currently on anti-mosquito products. Strategly organising such a project is also something very high leverage that a local effective altruism group can just do. A weekend of sitting together and writing the core texts. Then some time coordinating to get initialise the right way. You can answer a bunch of media queries with takes additional time but not that much. If the reporter wants to interact with you maybe 3-4 hours per news piece. A bit more if you try cold call many reporter and most requests fail, but that time is optional and you can distribute it in a team.
3[anonymous]6yIt boggles my mind that running a kickstarter campaign in association with the bioengineers behind this is beyond your capabilities, but pushing legislation through the political process is not. Either you know more about the difficulties of running a science kickstarter than I do, or you greatly underestimate the difficulty of securing taxpayer financing.
0ChristianKl6yAt a first step the goal isn't directly securing funding but pushing the idea out to be public knowledge. Signing a petition has a lower barrier to entry then giving money for a kickstarter campaign. It might very well be that after having invested month in the project no parliament shows any interest in funding it. I wouldn't expect to get results that fast. It might very well be that through the process enough capable individuals get interested in the project and the correct action is to run a kickstarter in a year. Maybe it could be that it makes sense for the Swiss effective altruism folks to push the project as a Swiss referendum. There no strong commitment on long term strategy by starting with petitions.

After further research I'm not certain whether the idea is currently the right strategic choice.

Objections against the idea often seem to boil down to usage of gene manipulation for getting sterilized male mosquitos. Given that there a public that hates the idea of gene manipulation that gives a publicity effort the chance to backfire.

On the other hand there already seem to be field trials in countries like Malaysia. That suggests that it's possible that at the moment the idea is pursued and we will progress in the common years as news of the success of p... (read more)

Are there legal issues to intentionally driving species to extinction?

2ChristianKl6yIn this case the most efficient way seems to involve inserting a few genes into your new mosquitos to make them sterile. Releasing billions of gene-manipulated mosquitos into the wild isn't something you can do without government approval.
0Douglas_Knight6yThe most efficient method is to engineer a gene that make the mosquitoes that only produce male sperm. (Harder than engineering sterility, but there are many models to copy.) This might require only a single release. By the time it was noticed it would be a fait accompli.
0Azathoth1236yDo mosquitoes even use an XY sex determination system?
0Douglas_Knight6ySo do, some don't. The first hit on google for mosquito sex determination says that a particular malaria mosquito does. The second talks about diversity.

So what's next after the mosquitoes?

Bed bugs? Cockroaches? Lice? Rats?

7Emile6yLet's find out! Who deserves to die? Human-biting mosquitoes? [pollid:781] Bed bugs? [pollid:782] Headlice? [pollid:783] Fleas? [pollid:784] Ticks? [pollid:785] Cockroaches? [pollid:786] Tapeworms? [pollid:787] Colorado potato beetles? [pollid:788] Boll Weevils? [pollid:789] Rats? [pollid:790]
8ChristianKl6yThe proposal doesn't kill any individual mosquito. It prevents new mosquitoes from getting born. It's vegan friendly in that sense.

A vegan-friendly genocide of a species is an interesting concept X-D

3DanielLC6yI'm thinking schistosoma haematobium, schistosoma mansoni, or hookworm. Those are what SCI is working against, which is one of GiveWell's top-rated charities. They're the only animals besides mosquitoes that I've been told harm humans in an Effective Altruism context.
2Capla6yTo be fair, I hit "I don't care" for anything that I didn't know what it was (and I couldn't be bothered to look it up). I expect that I was not the only one to do so. In one sense this skews the results, but in another sense it's still fairly actuate, since, realistically, people don't care about species they've never heard of.
0ChristianKl6yAll are more difficult to target. Breeding a gazillion male rats that can't produce offspring is harder than raising corresponding number of mosquitos.
0Lumifer6yIgnoring implementation difficulties, do you see any problems with a progression like that?
7ChristianKl6yAccording to Wikipedia out of over 3,000 species of lice 3 are classified as human disease agents. I see no problem getting rid of those three species. Bed bugs certainly have no business being in human rooms, but I don't know much about them. I won't miss them. Cockroaches on the other hand don't harm humans. They might not look nice, but I don't see them as problems. As far as rats go, I don't think they have a place in human cities I would prefer a canalisation system designed in a way that rats don't have a place. I don't have an issue with rats outside of human cities.

This sounds fishy. Clearly Bill Gates is smart enough to have considered this approach. If not, let him know.

5ChristianKl6yIf you look at the linked post, you will find Holden (from Give Well) saying that Bill Gates foundation is likely going to study the issue in further detail. Furthermore Africa is much bigger than a European country like Germany, so it should be easier to do in Germany than in a big country with many remote villages.
4Adele_L6yHolden Karnofsky in the comments of the linked article:
0solipsist6yIf it were genuine, Bill Gates would have picked it up. It says something about Bill Gates that this applies for charities, but not for $20 bills lying in the street.

I am all for this. This project will have a more positive impact on the German population than most economic projects by now for this price. And the developed technology can be used to eradicate mosquitoes, cutting off a chain in the transmission of malaria, a cause for an unspeakable amount of suffering and death, maybe even kickstarting economies closer to the equator.

Someone should run for president on this platform.

That's one of the best news I've seen recently! I didn't even know this was possible at a reasonable cost...

How could we get a government to do this without spending too much money ourselves?

Taken literally, this is best accomplished by governments other than your own. That way, your taxes are not increased and the public services you use are not defunded.

0ChristianKl6yNo. Having a one Euro tax rate increase wouldn't qualify for me as spending "too much money". If I would run the project I would pay more money in hosting costs and website registration.
0fortyeridania6yI see. I guess I was interpreting "ourselves" more broadly than you had meant.