British and Kenyan scientists have discovered a microbe that they say has "enormous potential" toward the possible eradication of one of the world's most dreaded diseases — malaria.
The study published in the journal Nature Communications says the microbe completely protects mosquitoes from being infected by malaria.
The microbe is called Microsporidia MB, and scientists discovered it inside the guts and genitalia of mosquitoes living around Lake Victoria in Kenya.
They report that they could not find a single mosquito with the microbe in its guts carrying the malaria bug.
"The data we have so far suggest it is 100% blockage, it's a very severe blockage of malaria," insect expert Dr. Jeremy Herren told the BBC. "It will come as a quite a surprise. I think people will find that a real big breakthrough."
The experts say they don't know exactly how the microbe works, but suspect it affects the mosquito's immune system in a way to allow the insect to fight off the malaria parasite.
The scientists estimate that about 5% of mosquitoes carry the microbe naturally. The experts' next step is to study ways to release the microbe-infected mosquitoes into the wild.
Malaria, which kills about 400,000 people every year, spreads through mosquito bites. The World Health Organization says most of the victims are children younger than five.
Although measures including mosquito nets and insecticides have led to tremendous progress in combating malaria over the past 20 years, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, existing strategies are proving to be insufficient, as mosquitoes develop resistance to some insecticides.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last month that while the global medical community is focused on battling the coronavirus, some diseases, including malaria, "will come roaring back" if fewer people are vaccinated because of the lack of attention.
The WHO forecasts the number of malaria deaths could surpass 769,000 this year.