Social media users falsely claim Malaysia mosquito project will spread new virus

Scientists have rebuked Facebook posts that accuse a mosquito breeding project in Malaysia of spreading a new virus and claim billionaire Bill Gates is involved. The Wolbachia project actually aims at preventing disease by releasing into the wild mosquitoes that carry harmless bacteria in order to curb transmission of three mosquito-borne illnesses. While Gates funds similar work elsewhere, he plays no part in the project in Malaysia.

"Can't convince people to get vaccinated 100%... Then release Wolbachia mosquitoes to spread the latest virus," reads a post shared here on Facebook on June 18, 2023.

"Take care, guys, there is nobody willing to help Malaysia... Bill Gates again... the KKM will just follow," it says in Malay, referring to the country's Ministry of Health.

The post contains a screenshot of a genuine Facebook entry from May 30, 2023 by Malaysian newspaper Sinar Harian that says Wolbachia mosquitoes will be released in 27 areas across the nation (archived link).

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Screenshot of the false post, taken on September 21, 2023

The Wolbachia project was launched in 2017 by Malaysia's Institute for Medical Research and aims to prevent the spread of the dengue, Zika and chikungunya viruses (archived links here and here).

It involves releasing mosquitoes into the wild that carry naturally occurring bacteria preventing the insects from transmitting the illnesses.

Wolbachia is a common type of bacteria found in a variety of insects and has no potential to make humans or animals fall sick, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (archived link).

The Malaysian research institute says on its website that the objective is "to replace wild dengue-transmitting mosquito populations with populations that are unable to transmit dengue, Zika or chikungunya viruses to people" (archived link).

Similar false claims about Gates and the Wolbachia mosquitoes spreading a new virus have been shared elsewhere on Facebook by Malaysia-based users, including here and here.

Not Gates

The Microsoft founder's charitable organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told AFP it is not involved with the Malaysia programme.

“This claim is false. The foundation does not fund the Wolbachia mosquitoes project in Malaysia,” it said via email on September 28, 2023.

Steven Sinkins, professor of microbiology and tropical medicine (virology) at the University of Glasgow, is collaborating with Malaysia on the Wolbachia project (archived links here and here). He told AFP the claims about Gates and a new virus are misinformation.

However, Gates has supported similar Wolbachia projects elsewhere in the world, including in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam (archived link).

His foundation has also funded programmes that use genetically modified mosquitoes to prevent malaria (archived links here and here). It says these efforts have saved 10.6 million lives.

"The Wolbachia Malaysia project is funded by the Wellcome Trust, UK, and uses a different strain of Wolbachia to that used in projects in some other countries that are supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation," Sinkins said on September 19, 2023 (archived link).

Sinkins added that the Wolbachia mosquitoes in Malaysia are not genetically engineered.

"Wolbachia is a naturally occurring symbiont that is completely safe and has not been genetically modified, just transferred between mosquito species," he said.

'Very successful'

Dr Riris Andono Ahmad, director of the Centre for Tropical Medicine at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, said the Wolbachia bacteria are already found organically in most insects across the natural world (archived link).

"It is estimated that 50 percent of insect species in nature contain Wolbachia," he told AFP by email on September 9, 2023.

Both experts agreed that breeding Wolbachia mosquitoes had reduced dengue transmission.

"The use of Wolbachia has been very successful, reducing dengue substantially (around 80 percent overall) in sites where it has been introduced... These sites were formerly hotspots for dengue transmission," Sinkins said.

In Indonesia, Riris said a trial study had shown Wolbachia can reduce dengue cases by up to 77 percent and cut the hospitalisation rate among patients by up to 86 percent.

In July 2023, AFP debunked a false claim that Gates' genetically modified mosquitoes caused a malaria outbreak in the United States.

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