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UH Hilo partners with Hawai‘i Biotech in West Nile Virus Vaccine study

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Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

A study to determine if a vaccine for West Nile Virus can be used to protect the endangered Hawaiian goose, the nene, against the deadly disease is currently underway by a faculty member at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Dr. Susan Jarvi, associate professor of biology, is leading the study, which is a collaborative effort involving personnel from multiple institutions and agencies. It is funded by Hawai‘i Biotech, Inc. and involves scientists from UH Hilo, UH Manoa, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI, Pacific Islands Ecosystems Research Center in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, the National Park Service and local veterinarians from the East Hawai‘i Veterinary Clinic and the Pet Hospital. The program to test the vaccine on Hawai‘i’s State bird was announced in June by Hawai‘i Biotech Inc.

“The vaccine was initially developed for use in humans, but its application may be more widespread,” said Hawai‘i Biotech president and CEO David Watumull.

Testing of the vaccine is initially being completed in domestic geese to establish the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine in geese before any attempts are made to vaccinate nene. Mortality rates due to WNV are known to be as high as 75% in some geese, and in 2003 the Center for Disease Control reported the death of an adult nene housed in a mainland zoo due to the virus.

“Introduction of WNV to Hawai‘i will likely impact many species, including humans, but our native bird populations will be especially hard hit,” Jarvi said. “WNV has not yet been detected in the islands, but based on its rapid spread in North, Central and South America over the past six years, it is likely just a matter of time. Successful application of this vaccine in protecting our State bird could be extended to other critically endangered species such as the Hawaiian crow, the ‘alala.”

Jarvi added that more than 289 species of birds and at least 30 non-avian vertebrate species are known to be susceptible to WNV, but birds, usually in the wild, are the principal hosts of the virus.

Jarvi is concurrently investigating malaria vaccines in birds and is a co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation project on the Biocomplexity of Introduced Diseases in Hawai‘i. She is also the leader for the NSF-Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) evolutionary genetics research core and supervisor of the core genetics facility at UH Hilo.

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