WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the Gulf Coast of Texas, a new player is working to fight mosquitoes carrying Zika and other diseases. It’s not a usual suspect from the world of health care, but Microsoft, a company best known for computer software and video games.
Harris County, Texas, is testing the new trap, which health officials believe will improve their ability to fight infectious diseases. The traps, which will be operational by early July, are expected to speed the process of identifying mosquito-borne illnesses and provide more data about when the diseases arrived.
“It’s going to advance the field of mosquito control in a way that has not been done in this country,” said Umair Shah, the executive director of Harris County public health. “If this does what we think it should be able to do, it’s going to be a real game-changer.”
Harris County will test the 10 new traps alongside the several hundred conventional traps that are already active in the area. Until now, health officials haven’t known exactly when an infected mosquito arrived in a trap.
The trap, developed at Microsoft Research, will identify specific breeds of mosquitoes and record when each mosquito entered it. When a breed of mosquito known to carry Zika or another disease enters the trap, a notice will automatically be sent to Harris County’s public health office.
“That’s the key,” Shah said. “It’s speeding up our decision-making processes.”
Microsoft researchers began developing the new trap during the Ebola outbreak in 2015. They wanted to use the latest technologies to see if they could reduce the likelihood of an emerging infectious disease arriving by surprise, according to Microsoft’s Ethan Jackson, who leads the project.
The trap itself is a foot-tall canister that sits on a tripod and includes 64 compartments to capture mosquitoes. The trap emits carbon dioxide, which is known to attract mosquitoes.
When a mosquito enters the trap, infrared light shines on the insect. Given how the light bounces, Microsoft researchers expect to eventually be able to identify different types of mosquitoes. If a certain type of mosquito flies into the trap, a spring-loaded door will automatically slam shut. If the infrared light doesn’t determine it’s a mosquito of interest, the door will remain open so the mosquito flies back out.
The trap door will then stay open until a more interesting mosquito arrives. There are 3,600 species of mosquitoes and only a handful carry Zika, dengue fever or West Nile virus.
Initially, the traps will not be smart enough to identify a given mosquito, and Microsoft will rely on Johns Hopkins University to determine the individual breeds. For the trap to learn to pick out specific mosquitoes on its own, it will be taught which visual attributes match certain breeds.
Other related data is captured, such as the time, temperature, humidity and light levels when the mosquito arrived. This information will help Microsoft and Harris County learn more about the behaviors of mosquitoes in their environment.
Jackson said lab tests have shown the trap’s ability to identify given mosquitoes, and Harris County is a chance to validate that it works in the field.
Down the road, the researchers hope to use drones to help determine the best locations to place traps.
Jackson said drones would be used to gather aerial photos, which computers would analyze for standing water, vegetation, and structures to determine areas that correlate with higher densities of mosquitoes.
Drones could regularly survey areas and detect changes to the landscape that may lead to more mosquitoes. Health officials could then respond with more traps in problem locations.