Minnesotans Look to Prevent Spread of New Bird Flu Strain

Updated: 04/09/2013 11:34 AM KSTP.com By: Chris Egert

Minnesota know-how is helping to stop the spread of a mysterious new bird virus spreading in China.

The flu was discovered just over a week ago -- and University of Minnesota infectious disease experts were notified immediately.

The U’s infectious disease experts are about as low key a group as you'll find around campus.

Located in two different offices, tucked away in two different buildings, they are a couple dozen people who aren't making news because of their salaries, or facilities, or their win-loss record.

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) employees don't work with Petri dishes -- but keypads and computers.  They’re tracking data -- like that coming in right now on the new H7 N9 bird flu strain -- and translating it into policies, and solutions, that save lives.

Dr. Michael Osterholm heads up the program, and says this about the new strain of flu, "The potential is very real, the zillion dollar question is – is this going to result in pandemic or not?"

Officials suspect the new flu, which normally spreads from bird to bird -- is now spreading from birds to people.  As of Monday night, Chinese health officials have confirmed 24 cases and 7 fatalities in the last week.

If it were to mutate -- and start spreading person-to-person Osterholm says, “It would be then, a virus that goes around the world."

Dr Ko Wing-Man, Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health held a news conference on Monday.

He said, “Any time when we detect any poultry in Hong Kong positive for H7N9 avian flu, or any human infection of H7 N9 is established in Hong Kong, we will escalate the contingency plan to a serious level. At the same time, we will also conduct partial or total culling of all live poultry in Hong Kong, as well as suspending the import of live poultry to Hong Kong."

As for the Chinese response – Dr. Osterholm says the government has gone above and beyond to pull experts around the world into the mix.

But will that stop H7 N9 from spreading from China to the United States, Minnesota and points beyond?

"We really don't know what is going to happen here," he said.

There is a vaccine being developed, not at the University of Minnesota.  Osterholm says that process could take 5 to 6 months.  He believes it could be as long as a year to produce enough vaccine to come close to making a difference.