Good afternoon. I am very pleased to be here at the official opening of NEA’s new Wolbachia mosquito production facility. This is a milestone for Project Wolbachia and for dengue control in Singapore. I am also delighted that the opening coincides with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Regional Training Course on Methods for the Mass-Rearing, Irradiation and Release of Sterile Male Aedes Species. A warm welcome to all participants. We are very glad to have you here to share this happy occasion with us.
2 Novel dengue control tools, along with platforms to share expertise about such tools, are urgently needed. The World Health Organization estimates that fifty to one hundred (50 to 100) million new dengue infections occur annually in more than one hundred and twenty-eight (128) endemic countries in tropical and subtropical regions. This translates to 100 to 200 new cases every minute globally. There is also worrying evidence of a geographical expansion of mosquito vectors and viruses to temperate countries where local dengue transmission has not previously been observed. This can be attributed to global warming leading to higher average daily temperatures in many countries.
3 In Singapore, we face many challenges in fighting dengue. Singapore’s tropical climate and urban environment is ideal for Aedes aegypti mosquito breeding. Our status as a travel and business hub facilitates the introduction and spread of dengue viruses. In addition, we have low population immunity to dengue, due to the relatively low dengue transmission after decades of good vector control. All these together make us vulnerable to dengue outbreaks. Despite increased vigilance from NEA and the public against mosquito breeding sites, we experienced a surge in dengue cases this year. Close to fifteen thousand (15,000) cases and, unfortunately, twenty (20) deaths have been reported so far. This surge in transmission is likely due to increased mosquito populations coinciding with very warm weather this year.
4 Over the next few decades, global warming along with climate change will likely worsen the dengue situation in Singapore and in other countries. This is because mosquitoes breed faster at higher temperatures, and the dengue virus also replicates faster, allowing it to be transmitted more efficiently.
5 In Singapore, we know that if we are serious about confronting climate change and other challenges, dengue control cannot simply be just “business as usual”.We cannot just do more of the same.Singapore’s National Environment Agency therefore continues to augment our integrated vector control programme by building in new tools and innovations, one of which is Project Wolbachia.
6 The first three phases of Project Wolbachia demonstrated that male Wolbachia-Aedes releases are safe and can be used to reduce the urban Aedes aegypti population. In Phase 3, from February to November 2019, we achieved a 90 percent suppression of the Aedes aegypti populations in study sites in Tampines and Yishun. But our field trials so far have only been carried out in small study sites comprising 284 apartment blocks in Tampines and Yishun.Moving forward, this new facility will give us the production capacity we need to expand our coverage to understand its impact on dengue.
7 The boost in production capacity at this new facility will be achieved through the incorporation of automated technologies such as larvae and pupae counters, high throughput larval rearing systems and male-female mosquito sorters. These automations are made possible by our collaborations with Orinno Technology, a local startup, Verily and the IAEA. To date, five patents have already been filed on the intellectual property arising from innovations with Orinno.
8 We have also worked closely with the IAEA to incorporate low-dose X-ray irradiation of size-sorted pupae into our workflow. This step is to render infertile any Wolbachia-Aedes aegypti females that may be inadvertently released alongside the males and prevent any buildup of female Wolbachia-Aedes mosquitoes. We want to avoid this propagation, because our suppression approach exploits the biological incompatibility between Wolbachia-carrying males and non-Wolbachia-carrying females, which results in these females laying non-viable eggs. A build-up of female Wolbachia-Aedes in the community will hamper the effectiveness of male releases in suppressing field mosquitoes.
9 Moving forward, the facility will continue to serve as an incubator and test bed for new solutions that are now in various stages of development. Therefore, Project Wolbachia’s impact goes beyond the realm of public health. The innovative solutions developed and collaborations formed through this important scientific initiative have also advanced research and economic opportunities in Singapore.
10 Another special feature of this facility is that it was designed with the environment in mind, and incorporates an automated water recycling system that treats wastewater from larvae rearing for re-use.
11 This facility was built with one more important function in mind. It provides a space for learning and mutual exchange of ideas, through platforms such as this week’s IAEA Regional Training Course. NEA’s Environmental Health Institute is honoured to co-organise and host this course.
12 Since NEA embarked on Project Wolbachia, we have learnt many valuable lessons about how to test and implement this novel technology. We are happy to share what we have learnt, and are also eager to learn from the experiences of other countries.
13 While Singapore has decided to focus on a sterile insect technique that combines Wolbachia and X-ray treatment, there are other plausible approaches, such as the classical sterile insect technique that relies only on radiation. Countries are opting for the technology that is best suited to their local contexts.
14 The various sterile insect technique-based approaches share many common components and challenges. These include ensuring the fitness and quality of the mosquitoes released, developing the capacity to produce large numbers of mosquitoes, and effectively engaging the public. The Regional Training Course is therefore a wonderful opportunity for participants to share expertise and initiate collaborations. This exchange of ideas will accelerate the development of novel technologies to tackle dengue, Zika, and other Aedes-borne diseases.
15 Even as we work towards the deployment of Wolbachia technology in Singapore, I would like to emphasise that we do not see it as the silver bullet for dengue control. Wolbachia is meant to enhance, not replace, our existing vector control strategies, which are focused on source reduction. In the absence of effective vaccines, we need continued community efforts to keep our homes free of mosquitoes, so that we can protect ourselves against dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and other mosquito-borne diseases. Indeed, any breeding of Aedes mosquitoes in the community will cancel out the positive impact of Wolbachia technology.
16 I hope all course participants will take home valuable ideas on how novel technologies can be integrated into their countries’ unique contexts, as well as how these technologies can work in concert with existing vector control programmes. This will go a long way towards enhancing global resilience to dengue.
17 Thank you.