UH gets approval to import avian flu
Some question the ability of the school to contain the virus
Hawaii's newest import will be the avian flu -- for research.
Despite some resistance from residents, the state Board of Agriculture yesterday voted 6-1 to allow the University of Hawaii to import the deadly virus for research and preparation for localized detection.
The next step would be to register with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said professor Vivek Nerurkar, a researcher at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Many critics asked why the research will be done in Hawaii when there are other established research facilities elsewhere, especially since the state hasn't seen the virus yet.
"Hawaii is already the endangered-species capital of the world," said Brodie Lockard of Kailua. "Any virus that might leave the lab accidentally could cause a tragedy. ... The research is more appropriate in a location, at least on a land mass, where the virus had already appeared."
But Nerurkar said: "Remember, we are in a global area. It's just a matter of when."
Christian Whelen, director of the state Health Department's Laboratories Division, said having a research facility in Hawaii would whittle state response time from a matter of days to a single day. A research lab here would need a sample of the deadly virus for comparisons in its diagnostic work, he said.
The avian flu strain that has devastated poultry flocks in Asia has yet to be detected in the United States. The World Health Organization reports 163 people have died from the H5N1 avian flu strain in 10 Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Board members asked yesterday about how the virus would be shipped into Hawaii. Nerurkar said the virus would come in an unmarked package with several layers of packaging, including a container that would not break after falling 35,000 feet from a plane.
Some, including state Sen. Gordon Trimble, raised concerns about the Manoa campus' ability to keep the virus safe, and under lock and key. Some cited the recent fires at the campus.
"When you talk about putting research in or adjacent to a tsunami zone, you have a whole number of factors to consider," Trimble said. "They have dormitories they can't use because they're not maintained."
Joel Fischer, a social work professor at UH, said the university has "a terrible record in isolation of contaminants, having been fined numerous times for inadequate storage of chemical and biological contaminants."
Researchers from the medical school said the laboratory is accessible only by card keys, and is pressurized to keep viruses in.
As part of the approval, the Agriculture Department's Plant Quarantine Branch will be inspecting the university's biocontainment laboratory before the virus arrives. The board also attached other permit conditions, including submitting procedures and adhering to national guidelines for facility design and safety.