We've already seen a number of low-cost devices that detect the Zika virus in human biological samples, providing health officials with an early warning of outbreaks. Now, however, an even earlier warning is possible, thanks to a system that quickly and cost-effectively detects the virus in mosquitoes – before the insects transmit it to humans.

Working with colleagues from Brazil, scientists at Australia's University of Queensland discovered that Zika-carrying mosquitoes can be identified using a non-invasive technology known as Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS). This involves shining a beam of near-infrared light on a mosquito, and analyzing the distinct manner in which that light is absorbed and reflected by the creature's head and thorax.

When lab-tested at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, the NIRS technique was found to be 94 to 99 accurate at identifying infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. And while there already is another method of detecting the virus in mosquitoes, known as quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR), NIRS was found to be 18 times faster while costing one 110th as much.

It is hoped that given a few more months of research, NIRS could also be used to identify mosquitoes carrying other diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.

"This is definitely going to be a game-changer in disease surveillance, especially in the prediction of disease outbreaks," says Queensland's Dr. Maggy Sikulu-Lord, who led the project along with Dr. Jill Fernandes.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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