via Mail Online
It was a show-stopping move by any standards.
Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft and a renowned philanthropist, let loose a swarm of mosquitoes at a technology conference in California to highlight the dangers of malaria.
‘Malaria is spread by mosquitoes,’ the Microsoft founder yelled at a well-heeled crowd at a technology conference in California.
’I brought some,’ he added. ‘Here, I’ll let them roam around – there is no reason only poor people should be infected.’
He let the shocked audience sweat for a minute or so before assuring them that the freed insects were malaria- free.
But that didn’t satisfy all the attendees.
‘That’s it. I am not sitting up front anymore,’ eBay founder Pierre Omidyar said.
The stunt was an attempt by Gates – who quit Microsoft last year to concentrate on his charity work – to hammer home the importance of malaria prevention.
It is one of the pet projects of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that announced last year it was donating £115 million to help develop a vaccine for the deadly disease.
Up to 2.7 million people a year still die of malaria each year, 75 per cent of them African children.
Although malaria has been eradicated in most countries with temperate climates, it is still prevalent on continents like Africa and Asia, which have tropical or subtropical climates.
Gates was speaking at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, California which attracts the great and the good from the worlds of science, technology, business, entertainment and academia.
The organisers of the TED conference said it was an ‘amazing moment’ and provided the audience with ‘food for thought’.
Chris Anderson, curator of the show, quipped that the moment should be headlined, ‘Gates releases more bugs into the world’.
Gates said more money was being spent finding a cure for baldness than developing drugs to combat malaria.
‘Now, baldness is a terrible thing and rich men are afflicted,’ he joked. ‘That is why that priority has been set.
‘The market does not drive scientists, thinkers, or governments to do the right things. Only by paying attention and making people care can we make as much progress as we need to.’
He called for greater distribution of insect nets and other protective gear, and revealed that an anti-malaria vaccine funded by his foundation and currently in development would enter a more advanced testing phase in the coming months.
‘I am an optimist; I think any tough problem can be solved,’ he said.
Malaria: The facts
Malaria is one of the biggest killers in the developing world. Most casualties occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where the most deadly strain of malaria is prevalent.
The disease is caused by a parasite transmitted by certain types of mosquitoes. Symptoms usually begin with a high fever, neck and back pain and progress to shivering, vomiting and convulsions. Children are particularly vulnerable.
Although pills exist that can help prevent malaria, there is currently no vaccine. Preventative medication is used mainly by travellers and is not available to the vast majority of people living in the Third World.
Resistance to antibiotics by the malaria parasite is also becoming a problem, with some preventative medications no longer effective in certain parts of the world.
However, there is hope. Australian researchers this week announced they had discovered a new way to treat malaria by deactivating an enzyme that the malaria parasite uses to feed on red blood cells.
When the new method is used to target the enzyme, ‘the parasite simply cannot complete the proper digestion of its food and dies,’ lead researcher James Whisstock said.
The study, published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted at Monash University in Melbourne.
Also this week, British scientists claimed to have identified genes that make some malaria-carrying mosquitoes resistant to insecticide. They hope the breakthrough could boost efforts to prevent the disease.
Knowing which genes help the mosquitoes dodge pesticides could point to ways to make better ones that are safer for people, too, said Charles Wondji of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and colleagues.
Killing mosquitoes with insecticides is one way to prevent malaria but finding potent, low-cost chemicals safe for humans is difficult, Wondji and his colleagues said.
In their study published in the journal Genome Research, the team studied strains of the mosquito Anopheles funestus that are both susceptible and resistant to a commonly used insecticide.
This allowed them to link defence against insecticides to two genes in a family of genes known as P450, considered a first line of resistance to toxins.
Importantly, this gene family has also been associated with resistance in the other major malaria-causing mosquito strain in Africa, suggesting that a well-designed insecticide could make a big impact in tackling the disease.
And because humans do not have these particular genes, scientists may be able to develop new chemicals to kill mosquitoes that are not poisonous to people, the researchers said.
‘Routine use of these molecular markers for resistance will provide early warning of future control problems due to insecticide resistance,’ said Hilary Ranson of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who helped lead the study.
‘(This) should greatly enhance our ability to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of resistance on malaria control.’
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced it will review one malaria prophylactic, Lariam, because of the risk it can cause severe psychiatric reactions in some people.