Colombia and Brazil announced on Wednesday a plan to release virus-resistant mosquitoes in urban areas to prevent new cases of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.
The 18-million-dollar project will begin early next year in Colombia's Antioquia and Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. It will be financed by local governments in Latin America, the US and the UK as well as an international team of donors.
The scientists will use Wolbachia bacteria, which occurs naturally in 60 percent of insects but not mosquitos. Small-scale trials of the technique has shown that injecting mosquitoes with the bacteria significantly reduces their ability to spread viruses to humans.
This year, several Latin American nations have been hit hard by the Zika epidemic which has been linked to the birth defect microcephaly. In February, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency.
"Using Wolbachia to reduce the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases has the potential to greatly reduce the global health burden and socio-economic cost of Zika and other related infections like dengue and yellow fever," said Mike Turner, acting director of science and head of infection and immunobiology at the global charity Wellcome Trust.
"This research is essential as it will help measure the health impact of the Wolbachia method in large urban areas, where these kinds of outbreaks can have such a devastating impact."
The process of injecting Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with the bacteria was developed by the Eliminate Dengue Program. It is a non-profit international research collaboration led by Australia's Monash University.
In 2014, small-scale field trials began in Brazil’s second-most populous city Rio de Janeiro.
The sponsors said the new cash injection will finance the rapid scale up of Wolbachia deployments in Latin America.
"Wolbachia coverage will be extended across Bello and other parts of Antioquia and now across parts of the greater Rio de Janeiro area," they said.