UH requests bird flu virus for study
A University of Hawaii laboratory is seeking state permission to import the potentially deadly bird flu virus for research to prepare for detection of the disease here.
The state Board of Agriculture will hear the application to import samples of the H5N1 avian flu strain at its 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting.
Researchers would work to develop a diagnostic test to prepare for the day when the virus is brought here by infected birds or humans, said Duane Gubler, chairman of the tropical medicine department at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine.
The avian flu strain that has devastated poultry flocks in Asia has not been detected in the United States. The World Health Organization reports 159 human deaths among 265 confirmed cases of the H5N1 strain in 10 Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
"The Department of Health right now is not able to confirm if they have a high pathogenic or low pathogenic strain," said Gubler, who will direct the UH project. "To develop a laboratory diagnostic test, we need to have the infectious virus for comparisons.
"If a high pathogenic strain does happen to be imported by humans, time is of the essence," Gubler said. "Samples sent to the mainland could take a week" to confirm a serious health threat. "By that time, if it is highly pathogenic, tens of thousands could be infected."
An advisory committee on plants and animals recommended unanimously that the Board of Agriculture approve the application, said Agriculture Department spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi. Two members of a subcommittee on viruses dissented: UH zoology professor John Stimson and Allen Allison, Bishop Museum vice president for science. Neither could be reached for comment.
Marjorie Ziegler, director of the Conservation Council of Hawaii, said she objects to the idea of bringing a potentially deadly virus into Hawaii.
"Why take the chance, when you could go to Asia, to a place which already has the virus, and do the same research? We have brought in so many invasive species with the best intentions. I'm a lay person, it's not my area of expertise, but I just don't trust that something won't go wrong."
Gubler noted, "We have a laboratory designed to work with viruses like this."