Researchers from New York University have uncovered a powerful insecticide, DFDT, that could make combatting insect-borne diseases much easier and less damaging for the environment. The scientists discovered the substance by examining another insecticide, DDT, which is known for its destructive environmental effects. Changing its structure, they came up with DFDT and tested it on mosquitoes and flies.
The result was impressive – it killed mosquitoes carrying malaria, Zika, Dengue and yellow fever two to four times faster, but a bigger surprise was still in store for the researchers. When they attempted to find out whether the substance had been used in the past, they discovered that DFDT was first produced in Nazi Germany.
“We were surprised to discover that at the outset DDT had a competitor which lost the race because of geopolitical and economic circumstances, not to mention its connection to the German military, and not necessarily because of scientific considerations. A faster, less persistent insecticide, as is DFDT, might have changed the course of the 20th century”, said Bart Kahr, professor of chemistry at New York University.
According to the scientists’ report, the substance was made by the Nazis during the Second World War and was used by their forces for insect control in the Soviet Union and in North Africa. When allied forces discovered DFDT, scientists questioned its effective qualities.
A declassified military report cited by the researchers read: “The German claims as to the superior insecticidal action of their [DFDT], in comparison to DDT, are not clearly supported by their meagre and inadequate tests against houseflies. Moreover, the Germans who tested it differ sharply among themselves as to their conclusions”.
Western scientists forgot about DFDT despite the fact that Swiss chemist Paul Müller, who discovered DDT’s ability to be used as an insecticide and was awarded Nobel Prize for his work with the chemical, insisted that DFDT was more effective and should replace DDT in the future.
The latest discovery of DFDT is crucial, as researchers say the world needs new and quick-working insecticides. According to the 2018 World Malaria Report, the disease kills 450,000 people around the world each year.