West Nile vaccine to be tested on nene
HILO » Researchers are studying whether a vaccine being developed to stop the spread of the West Nile virus may be able to protect rare Hawaiian birds from the disease if it ever appears in the islands.
West Nile is transmitted to humans through mosquitoes that pick up the virus by feeding on infected birds. Hawaii is the only state that has not reported a case of the virus.
Susan Jarvi, an associate biology professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, is studying whether the vaccine could protect the endangered Hawaiian goose from the virus.
West Nile was first reported in the United States in 1999. Most infected people never get sick, but about 20 percent suffer flu-like symptoms. Fewer than 1 percent become severely ill, some with potentially fatal inflammation of the brain, membranes of the brain or spinal cord.
In 2003, the most recent year for which data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 9,862 human cases of West Nile in the United States. Of those, 264 were fatal.
Jarvi's research focuses on preventing the spread of the disease to the endangered nene, the state bird, which number about 1,400 statewide.
Her study involves vaccinating 65 domestic geese at the campus' agriculture farm in Panaewa. Half of the birds were then sent to a U.S. Geological Survey facility in Wisconsin for exposure to the virus.
The study is being funded by Hawaii Biotech, an Aiea-based biopharmaceutical company that last year reported 100 percent success in stopping the virus in tests on hamsters and mice.
The company last year was awarded a $15.5 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to fund preclinical development of the West Nile vaccine and also one for dengue fever.
"The vaccine was initially developed for use in humans, but its application may be more widespread," said David Watamull, president of Hawaii Biotech.
If the testing on domestic geese is successful, the next step would be to test it on non-breeding nene, Jarvi said.
"We will be able to net certain populations of nene if and when the time comes," she said.
The vaccine may also eventually help protect other rare birds, such as the 'alala or Hawaiian crow, she said.
Preliminary results of the study should be available in several months, Jarvi said.