British scientists are on the cusp of producing a new generation of mosquito-fighting tools that will lead the charge in the fight against malaria.
With more than 600,000 people, mainly children, dying from malaria every year, wiping out the disease is a race against time.
Researchers at the Innovative Vector Control Consortium in Liverpool are working with industries on five new insecticide chemical formulas that they believe will be game changers in the next five years.
Malaria is carried by mosquitoes and the insecticides are vital to help control their numbers.
The team is presently working on testing the chemicals on bed nets and sprays before they are used in field trials in Africa. If successful, their research will be submitted to the World Health Organisation for approval.
The charity has already successfully helped to bring five clients' products to the market place, one of the latest the Interceptor G2 nets have reduced malaria incidences by 44 per cent when compared with standard nets.
With mosquito resistance to existing insecticides growing, the race to find the next formula to tackle them is imperative, experts told The National.
“The fight against malaria is really important, it is the equivalent to sub-Saharan Africa facing a pandemic every year,” Chris Larkin of the IVCC said.
“The battle we face is the mosquitoes growing resistance to existing insecticides and the scientists at IVCC are working hard to find the next game changers.
“Due to the emergence of insecticide resistance, we now have a new product portfolio to take the place of effective sprays.
“We are confident we have three to five compounds we can bring through so the next generation of bed nets can be rotated to slowdown insect resistance. By rotating and changing the insecticides used on the nets and in sprays each year we can help reduce the mosquitoes resistance to it.
“We have tested millions of chemicals and there are not many left, we do not know where the next set will come from, so it’s imperative we work fast to help reduce resistance.”
Liverpool at the forefront of tackling malaria for more than a century
The IVCC was established in 2005 through an initial $50 million grant to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – which has been working closely with the UAE in a bid to eradicate diseases worldwide.
World Mosquito Day, which will take place on Sunday, marks 126 years since the transmission of malaria by mosquitoes was first discovered by British scientist Sir Ronald Ross in 1897 – the first ever lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
Now, the work he began in Liverpool is continuing in the city through the IVCC.
“We have five components at different stages of development,” Mr Larkin said.
“A lot of testing will be done on the toxicology and eventually these chemicals will be formulated to be applied to a product. It will then be tested in lab conditions and then field trials will take place. Once the data is compiled, it will form part of a dossier to be submitted to WHO for approval.
“We have a really robust pipeline of chemistry we are taking through different phases presently, it is really important we take these forward to market asap. New chemistries bring a game changer.
“We know the new chemistries are working and we need to get the products into the market at pace and scale.”
Inside the UK charity helping combat malaria
Latest figures show there were 229 million cases of malaria in 2019 and 409,000 deaths – two thirds of which were children under five.
Many of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa but the work to tackle the disease is taking place more than 3,200 kilometres away in IVCC’s specialist labs in Liverpool.
Being surrounded by more than 20,000 mosquitoes on a daily basis is probably most people’s worst nightmare.
But for IVCC’s researchers, the mosquitoes are helping them to save lives.
“I never imagined I would be working with mosquitoes everyday,” Dr Amy Guy told The National.
“I love the work we do, it’s so exciting and so important to know that the work we do here will save lives. The breakthroughs we have made have been amazing.”
Inside the labs, the research is split into separate areas to protect against cross-contamination.
Technicians wear different coloured protective coats, with those in white surgical attire working in the breeding centre.
Working in high temperatures, researchers breed mosquitoes from sub-Saharan Africa, drip-feeding them on human blood, to enable the latest cutting-edge insecticides to be tested.
Dozens of trays containing 600 eggs are stacked on the counters while glass boxes full of mosquitoes line the shelves.
It is from here that the mosquitoes are taken to a separate lab where the testing of insecticides takes place.
Washing lines holding small pieces of net are strung up around the lab and specialist chambers are used to test the sprays.
The team has to ensure the nets can be washed up to 20 times and still keep their full resistance.
No variant can be overlooked in their research and the team has tiles of different materials, from mud and wood to cement, in the lab to replicate the materials used in homes in Africa.
Once their rigorous testing has been completed, the chemicals are then used in field trials in tropical countries.
Millions of people will be protected by the mosquito nets
The team is focused on developing insecticides to treat nets and for spraying walls indoors.
Scientists at IVCC are developing and plan to distribute 35 million next generation mosquito nets that will protect an estimated 63 million people.
Over the past two decades, there has been a 47 per cent decline in malaria mortality rates, aided by the invention of new preventive products such as long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
But insecticide resistance could reduce the effectiveness of chemicals currently used.
The WHO has recorded 73 countries that have detected resistance to at least one insecticide and 28 countries that have detected resistance to all four of the most common ones.
IVCC chief executive Justin McBeath said resistance to existing insecticides is a growing concern.
“Resistance is becoming more and more widespread,” he said.
“It is one of the most significant challenges to eliminating malaria.
“When we were set up there was a mass deployment of bed nets and resistance was already being seen. Vector control has a massive impact and it is really important for malaria prevention.
“What we have brought through has been incredibly successful, and the work we are doing is vital to keep ahead of the game.”
Malaria has become a global concern and earlier this year, the UAE's President Sheikh Mohamed announced that his country was committed to eradicating it.
The UAE is a major contributor in the fight to make malaria history through the Roll Back Malaria initiative. In January, it delivered a $5 million boost to an international campaign aimed at addressing the affects of climate change on efforts to eradicate malaria.
Mr Larkin says vector control needs to be at the forefront in efforts to eradicate it.
“We need drugs and vaccines for malaria to be eradicated but each of these arms need to work in conjunction with protective measures,” Mr Larkin said.
“The vaccines are not a silver bullet we still need interventions in terms of drugs and protection. We are not the sexy side of the fight but we are very much needed.
“There is no excuse for thousands of children to die needlessly any more.”