Now is the time to eliminate mosquitoes

by James_Miller1 min read6th Aug 201689 comments


BiologyMedicineEffective Altruism
Personal Blog

“In 2015, there were roughly 214 million malaria cases and an estimated 438 000 malaria deaths.”  While we don’t know how many humans malaria has killed, an estimate of half of everyone who has ever died isn’t absurd.  Because few people in rich countries get malaria, pharmaceutical companies put relatively few resources into combating it.   


The best way to eliminate malaria is probably to use gene drives to completely eradicate the species of mosquitoes that bite humans, but until recently rich countries haven’t been motivated to such xenocide.  The Zika virus, which is in mosquitoes in the United States, provides effective altruists with an opportunity to advocate for exterminating all species of mosquitoes that spread disease to humans because the horrifying and disgusting pictures of babies with Zika might make the American public receptive to our arguments.  A leading short-term goal of effective altruists, I propose, should be advocating for mosquito eradication in the short window before rich people get acclimated to pictures of Zika babies.   


Personally, I have (unsuccessfully) pitched articles on mosquito eradication to two magazines and (with a bit more success) emailed someone who knows someone who knows someone in the Trump campaign to attempt to get the candidate to come out in favor of mosquito eradication.  What have you done?   Given the enormous harm mosquitoes inflict on mankind, doing just a little (such as writing a blog post) could have a high expected payoff.


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I got to the front page of Reddit, which probably got somewhere on the order of magnitude of 50,000 people to read it or at least think about the idea, which can only help in terms of moving it into the Overton Window.

I know at one point it was number 6 for logged out users.

3James_Miller5yGreat! How did you get it to the front page of Reddit?

I just submitted it and was lucky. It's the kind of thing that sub likes. I've had around three posts hit the front page out of probably thousands since I started, there's definitely a large luck factor that goes in.

We're consequentialists here, so I get all the credit for it even if it wasn't much effort, right?

2ike5yBy the way, looking at [] there are another couple submissions in other subs right after mine which were presumably inspired by my post (the article is from February), one in TIL which also hit the frontpage.

Agreed! What would be the best approach (I'm a PhD student and vector-borne disease epidemiologist)?

  • Writing one or more popular/lay articles
  • Writing one or more technical/scholarly articles
  • Writing a popular/lay book
  • Writing a technical/scholarly book
  • Starting an advocacy non-profit
  • Performing an explicit cost-benefit analysis
  • Modelling to determine the necessary conditions for eradication
  • Something else... ?
5James_Miller5yFor you I suggest something that also advances your career so that you can devote more time to the project. If the answer to this isn't clear I suggest talking to your professors asking what they suggest. Another approach is to become a literal superhero. Assemble a group of scientists who on their own could eradicate mosquitoes and just do it. Don't wait for official approval.
0XFrequentist5yThe appeal of this route is obvious, but I don't think it should be discussed on a public forum.
0James_Miller5yCertainly, no one seriously considering implementing such a policy should advocate it in a public forum. I think lots of scientists would consider breaking existing ethical standards to do a massive amount of good to be non-obvious.
0Lumifer5yThat's an excellent way to end up in jail on bioterrorism charges.
0James_Miller5yI don't think what I'm advocating can by any reasonable or standard definition be classified as terrorism. I'm not seeking to harm or scare anyone.
5gwern5yYou would, at the very least, be in violation of several acts regarding approval of GMOs: [] [] Specifically, you'd be violating FDA requirements by releasing '“new animal drugs” (NADs)' without approval. Depending on whether mosquitoes are considered plant pests, it looks like you'd also be violating Department of Agriculture laws. I assume you'd probably also be violating a number of EPA laws but didn't see anything specifically about that.
1James_Miller5yCouldn't you get around these laws by either (a) releasing the mosquitoes outside of the U.S. or (b) creating and releasing them outside of the U.S.?
3gwern5yMaybe not. At least one bioterrorism provision has extraterritoriality [].
2Lumifer5yDo you know that a pipe bomb is legally classified as a weapon of mass destruction?
0James_Miller5yYes it is (with emphasis on the word "excellent"). That's part of why doing it would make one a superhero. Edit: I wonder if you could do this without breaking any laws if you only release the mosquitoes in international waters?
0Lumifer5yActually, ending up in jail is a good option. I suspect that there are certain government agencies which, on learning that you secretly plan to release genetically-engineered insects into the wild, would just disappear you. Notably such agencies give zero shits about concepts like "international waters".

I don't think that gene drives are the best technology when you account for the politics and indeed the post by Luke that you link doesn't use the term. SIT seems to be effective enough from a cost-benefit analysis and can be used in a very controlled way.

I look a while ago into the issue and wrote an LW post about it. I think there's a fair chance that pushing for gene drives mosquitos to be released will mean that mosquito elemintion will happen later rather than sooner.

Oxitec has today the technology that produes "sterile mosquitio" sterile fo... (read more)

2James_Miller5yI wonder if Trump advocating gene drive might push liberals to counter with a less drastic proposal such as what you suggest. I don't have a good model of how liberals think, but if Trump did advocate using gene drive to exterminate mosquitoes would liberals really be capable of countering with the status quo given liberals current support for "black lives matter."
0ChristianKl5yI think the idea of actually exterminating mosquitos is already extrem for many liberals who would rather prefer handing out bet nets.
2James_Miller5yMy honest response to this comment would involve observations on liberals that violate LW norms.
0Vaniver5yThe sterile insect approach is, at best, a population control measure, rather than an extinction measure. Some may hope that if you do population control long enough, they eventually go extinct, but I think the evidence for that is pretty low. (Cynically, the sterile insect approach is something that has to be done repeatedly to be effective, which makes it more of a utility than a one-off project.) I think it's worth giving this the smallpox treatment--that is, there's a heroic scientific project involving the permanent elimination of a scourge on the human race, and stressing the importance of permanent solutions to the problem. Yes, smallpox required vaccination approaches that are similar to the sterile insect approach, but that doesn't work well with mosquitoes, so we'll use the tool that works well.
0ChristianKl5yWe already eliminated Malaria carrying Mosquitos from large parts of the West with DDT and related techniques. Those mosquitos didn't manage to easily recolonize the areas from which they were driven away. Louie Helm article suggest that SIT is enough to drive mosquito species to extinction. Do you think there a reason he's wrong? His numbers might be on the low end but spending a few billions would very much be worth it to eliminate all human biting mosquitos.
1Douglas_Knight5yNo, the extent of mosquitoes was reduced by draining swamps. Other methods, such as DDT did not reduce the extent of mosquitoes, but eliminated malaria from them.
0Vaniver5yMy understanding is that this isn't the case where Oxitec has done its tests, but this may be a feature of the size of the area where Oxitec is doing its tests rather than a feature of the method itself. (I suspect we did DDT everywhere at once, which would reduce the ability of mosquitoes to recolonize relative to a single test area.) I think my main objection is that it's a few billions to do the sterile insect approach, and a few millions to do the gene drive approach, if that much. Insisting on a 1000x increase in cost to maybe please the public more rankles.
2ChristianKl5yOxitec has already PR problem with it's current approach where they can prove that all mosquitos don't leave ancestors and where they focus on disease carrying mosquitos that are invading species. See [] [] According to Oxitec []: Spending a few billions on eliminating disease carrying mosquitos would be okay. Even if over the long-term using the gene drive technology is the best way to go, I don't think it's the best way to have the discussion at the beginning when they idea of eliminating mosquito species enters public consciousness.
2HungryHobo5yOh my god those articles are stupid. If only there was some way to physically scream "THAT'S THE FUCKING POINT!" at the author. The whole point is to spread the "kill switch" to the wild mosquitoes.To kill them. The Daily mail article appears to be referring to this: [] where people started pointing to GM mosquitos having been released in areas where zika has been spreading. never mind that areas where mosquito's are the biggest problem are the areas where you try mosquito control, in a similar vein it's suspicious that most malaria deaths are in areas where bednets have previously been distributed. There can be only one conclusion: bednets cause malaria.

Should we worry that if Trump supports eradicating mosquitoes, that will cause Trump opponents to oppose it?

6Viliam5yMake it obvious that we are targeting male mosquitoes, then the idea will also be acceptable for the other side.
-1Lumifer5yAnd specifically cis het male mosquitos!
4James_Miller5yYes, this does reduce the benefit of getting Trump to support mosquito eradication.
0hairyfigment5yMore to the point, PZ Myers has already come out against it on ecological grounds (though that was probably some years ago.) This would solidify him in that position if he hasn't already changed his mind. Now, if it's Trump vs scientists, what will happen?
0James_Miller5yWe perhaps shouldn't give much weight to PZ Myers' viewpoint. See this Slatestarcodex article. []
0hairyfigment5yHow is that a response? Is it what you plan to tell the media?
1James_Miller5yNo, as I doubt the media would give the same amount of weight to Scott A. as readers here do. I doubt the media would ever ask me to respond to PZ Myer's opinion on this.

Nature news

"Gene drives thwarted by emergence of resistant organisms"

"The Target Malaria team has developed a second generation of gene-drive mosquitoes, hoping to slow the development of resistance, says Andrea Crisanti, a molecular parasitologist at Imperial College London. The researchers plan to test them in their new Italian facility later this year to get a sense of how the mosquitoes might fare in the wild. But molecular biologist Tony Nolan, also at Imperial, expects evolution to throw up some surprises. He says that his greatest wor... (read more)

more mosquito links, this is about weaponizing humans blood to poison mosquitoes.! weaponizing humans in new and ethically challenging ways.

Consider reposting this on the EA Forum, might get more hits that way.

2James_Miller5yI tried. I guess it wasn't accepted.
2The_Jaded_One5yThat's disappointing.

Mosquitoes fatally attracted to deadly, sweet-smelling potion

"Ultimately, they used a semiochemical blend in a matrix containing sugars and proteins to mimic 20 common chemical signals that attract mosquitoes to nectar-producing flowers and induce them to feed. Combining these compounds with insecticides such as pyrethroids or spinosad led to highly effective formulations. "

"In preliminary results, they found that mosquito populations plunged by two-t... (read more)

Bacteria could be key to freeing South Pacific of mosquitoes

Islands in the region could be rid of the biting insects within a decade.

"He and his team plan to do this using a technique that infects mosquitoes with a specific strain of a bacterium called Wolbachia. About 65% of insects around the world carry Wolbachia, but the strains vary. If mosquitoes with different strains mate, the resulting eggs develop incorrectly and don’t hatch. If there are enough of... (read more)

A mosquito trap that uses a person’s smell combined with warm water and a dark cylindrical shape could transform how the insects are caught in developing countries, say its creators."

Coetzee says to get protection throughout the night, the light would need to be switched on every two hours, which would disrupt human sleeping patterns as well as mosquito biting behaviour.

a mosquito specific fungus that expresses scorpion toxins.

Improved efficacy of an arthropod toxin expressing fungus against insecticide-resistant malaria-vector mosquitoes

"We previously demonstrated that fungal pathogens can provide an effective delivery system for mosquitocidal or malariacidal biomolecules. Here we compared genes from arthropod predators encoding insect specific sodium, potassium and calcium channel blockers"

"In conclusion, fungi can be genetically modified to strategically m... (read more)

Cationic amino acid transporters play key roles in the survival and transmission of apicomplexan parasites.

Association between Toxoplasma gondii seropositivity and memory function in nondemented older adults.

report an experimental molecule that inhibits kidney function in mosquitoes and thus might provide a new way to control the deadliest animal on Earth.

"What our compounds do is stop urine production, so they swell up and can't volume regulate, and in some cases they just pop," he said.

"By targeting blood feeding female mosquitoes, we predict that there will be less selective pressure for the emergence of resistant mutations," Denton said.

The investigators show VU041 to be effective when applied topically, which indicates that it potentia... (read more)

Visual guide to hacked mosquitoes

and they say at end of article that large scale tests in urban areas of brazil next year

The lab where they intentionally infect people with malaria to run "challenge" studies.\

another group working on mosquito reduction.

According to Technology Review Gates is targeting 2029 for releasing gene drive mosquitoes.

0James_Miller5yImagine after defeating the Nazis we decided to wait 13 years before closing their death camps.

I didn't know there was even a group out there taking the discussion to it's limits, Interesting read.

"What principle(s) should govern our stewardship of the rest of the living world? How many of the traditional horrors of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" should we promote and perpetuate? Alternatively, insofar we want to preserve traditional forms of Darwinian life, should we aim for an ethic of compassionate stewardship instead. Cognitively, nonhuman animals are akin to small children. They need caring for as such."

http://io9.gizmodo.c... (read more)

Is it a good idea to leave alive mosquitos that don't bite humans? How long would it take them to mutate and fill the "human bloodsucking" niche that is suddenly vacant?

Perhaps a more comprehensive program of disease vector eradication is in order. Any organism that acts as a flying hypodermic needle poses the risk of moving pathogens around between species. For that matter, there are a lot of parasites in the world that parasitise mammals. If they were all to be eradicated, predators could take up the slack, but predators such as foxes, wolves ... (read more)

4Good_Burning_Plastic5yKilling all mosquitoes would be way too likely to have seriously bad unintended consequences IMO.
2The_Jaded_One5yIt would be something that I'd like to ask an expert about, but I think it's worth considering. More generally: the ecosystem we have today is almost certainly not the best one we could possibly have. Therefore there may be feasible positive changes we can make to it.
0Lumifer5yDefine "best".
1ChristianKl5yI don't think "human bloodsucking" is the niche in which most of the competition happens. Human from which blood can be sucked aren't the scarce resource. Competition among larves looks to me like it's a stronger barrier.
0The_Jaded_One5yI am not a biologist so I cannot comment on this. It is apparently the case that larvae compete with each other for microbes and algae as a food source.
1James_Miller5yGood point.

Note that with a goal to eliminate a species completely, the longer you wait to get experience and perfected technology, the better.

A major screw up in such a case would be some random factor, mutation etc. preventing us from wiping all mosquitoes, and leaving a group that would be resistant to current gene-drive technology.

I don't know enough about gene-drives to suggest how it might happen - but the point is that there are always "unknown unknowns".

That smaller group would then quickly spread and replace the previous population, and would be ha... (read more)

4James_Miller5yTrue if gene drive is like antibiotics, but is it? Every day we wait 1,200 people die of malaria because of delay, a price worth paying if, but only if, you get some significant benefit from waiting. Another big "unknown unknown" is what other viruses mosquitoes will put in us if we don't quickly eliminate them.
0HungryHobo5yI remember having a similar discussion about HIV and anti-retroviral drugs. In short, it's an easy position to take if you and the people you care about aren't currently in the firing line and making policy choices on assumptions about future discoveries that we can't guarantee is ethically problematic.
0SquirrelInHell5yI agree with you 100%, and I'm not really advocating to put anything off based on my argument. I am merely bringing it up to address it properly, i.e. be aware when a trade-off is being made on this scale.

This is probably a good idea. My take is that most of resistance I'm culturally aware of would come from people concerned about an irreversible change to the ecosystem, whether or not this concern is warranted. Potentially worth investigating/getting some experts on your side/proposing a contained preservation of a mosquito population (the way we preserve rare diseases)

2MixedNuts5yWell yes, I am very concerned, because you're talking about convincing people that it won't collapse ecosystems, and not about figuring out whether it'll actually collapse ecosystems in the real world that doesn't care how persuasive you sound.
0Dr_Manhattan5yI agree figuring out whether this might collapse ecosystems is important, (and what this collapse would entail, it would probably go beyond mosquitos and lead to some species rebalancing, but pretty darn sure not "destroy everything" either)
0tut5yThere are mosquito populations that you shouldn't try to exterminate, because they are important to their ecosystem. If you get rid of them a bunch of birds have no food and so they are gone too etc. But they are up here in the arctic. Getting rid of all the tropical mosquitoes is good for everyone and does not have any great effects on any ecosystem. Everyone that eats mosquitoes there also has other insects that they prefer to eat.
7HungryHobo5yThere's about 3200 species of mosquito. < 200 bite humans and perhaps a dozen are major disease vectors for humans. We extinct about 150 species per day without really trying. Increasing the number of species we push to extinction by 10% for a single day would save half a million lives per year.
0James_Miller5yThese are important comparisons.
2morganism5yYes, you want to keep a viable population because they may be a gene modification delivery system. In warm countries, it is the cheapest and broadest way to "infect" a population. If you do find a way to do RNA insertions from injectables, this would be an ideal system. Perhaps that is why we have them. My friends had a similar discussion on HIV a long time ago, that it may turn out to be the ultimate cellular insertion tool we ever come across. As i recall, if you have HIVb, you body doesn't develop AIDS, so a de-weaponized HIV virus may become a tool down the line. The same may be said about malaria and the other apicomplexans. They have little organs at the front of the parasite that allow them to easily slide into cells, videos make em look like they just swim up to a cell, and nose into it. Pretty amazing biology
9James_Miller5ySo another reason to exterminate "wild" mosquitoes is that otherwise they are a convenient vector for bio-terrorism.

If it is possible to drive mosquitoes to extinction, it is a good idea, but it sounds difficult to me. It would be easier to to use gene drive to spread antimalarial drugs. This sounds complicated, but people have done it in the lab. By aligning the gene drive with the fitness of the mosquitoes, it is more likely to work. It does not preclude future extermination. But this is a complicated mechanism, not easily adaptable to, say, Zika.

Not that it's relevant, but the claim that malaria has killed half of humans who have lived is completely absurd. Falciparum malaria is nasty because it has only recently jumped to humans. With time, it would adapt to be less deadly, to better spread, and humans would adapt to be less vulnerable. This is exactly what happened to vivax ("benign") malaria. Vivax jumped to humans 35k years ago, while falciparum only 5k years ago. The genus Homo was free of malaria for millions of years. If you define humans as starting 50k years ago, then some form of malaria was present for most of that time, although how deadly it was varied a lot over the millennia.

2Good_Burning_Plastic5yGiven population growth, it's not obvious to me that more people lived until 5k years ago than since then.
0Douglas_Knight5yThat's true, the population estimates used in the models James cites are dominated by the agricultural era. But the claim that half of deaths are due to malaria is based on the contrary assumption that most humans lived in subsaharan Africa. Here [] is some commentary on the two most popular models.
-2entirelyuseless5yGo and look at the estimates. They have already been made and are easily found with the usual method.

Most prediction markets give Hillary Clinton an advantage over Donald Trump. In general, if one candidate comes out in favor of something, the supporters of the other candidate will be more likely to oppose that thing (all else equal). Doesn't this suggest attempting to get Clinton to come out in favor of eradicating mosquitos is the better strategy?

3James_Miller5yI think eradication would appeal more to Trump than Clinton so there is a higher marginal value in attempting to persuade him. Trump supporting eradication would at least put the issue in serious political play. Finally, I'm a Republican and if somehow I managed to contact someone on team Hillary she would likely Google me and quickly determine I was a political enemy and so would at best ignore my proposal.
0Jayson_Virissimo5yHave you already tried getting the idea through to Trump via a backchannel like Scott Adams (some of Trump's staffers pay attention to him), who takes cost-benefit style arguments seriously?
0James_Miller5yNo. Adams says he has no contact with the Trump campaign.

Is there a possibility that those diseases will move to a different animal?

3James_Miller5yCDC [] CDC []

Malaria infections up in the US, mostly due to travel

"The study showed that malaria hospitalizations were more common in the U.S. than hospitalizations for many other travel-associated diseases. For example, during the same period, dengue fever, which is common in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and throughout Latin America, and has caused small, local outbreaks in south Florida and Texas, generated, on average, 259 hospitalizations a year compared with 1,489 for malaria.

According to the study, malaria hospitalizations are quite common in the U.S., and the assoc... (read more)

Artemisia annua dried leaf tablets treated malaria resistant to ACT and i.v. artesunate

" After five days of treatment with tablets made from only the dried and powered leaves of Artemisia , all 18 patients fully recovered. Laboratory tests showed they had no parasites remaining in their blood. (Weathers noted more than 100 other drug-resistant patients also have been successfully treated with DLA tablets.)

Natural Selection Is About to Be Overpowered by the First-Ever Mammalian Gene Drive"

"If the new gene drives prove effective and New Zealand’s plan moves forward, this marks the first use of the technology to wipe out entire local populations of an animal species"

"A workaround is the Trojan female approach, spearheaded by Dr. Daniel Tompkins at the Landcare Research organization based in New Zealand. The technology wo... (read more)

0Lumifer4yNot sure that the first Trojan female approach [] worked out successfully... Isn't the point that they will not?

I haven't done anything, but I applaud you for doing stuff. Good luck saving all those people.