Hokkaido Univ., Shionogi to Cooperate on Therapeutics to Protect Rare Birds from Avian Flu

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hokkaido University

Hokkaido University and pharmaceutical firm Shionogi & Co. will join hands in developing therapeutic methods to protect rare birds from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

The partnership will approach the problem using Xofluza, a medicine for treating influenza in humans that is made by Shionogi.

In the latest outbreak of avian flu, infections spread among endangered wild birds at risk of extinction as well as birds kept at zoos.

The university and the Osaka-based drugmaker aim to establish therapeutic methods by examining the appropriate amount of dosage, thus having it come into wide use at zoos and facilities to protect birds.

Xofluza, which Shionogi began selling in 2018, suppresses the proliferation of the influenza virus in the human body, and has shown high efficacy with a single dose.

In the latest outbreak, avian flu spread from last autumn to this spring in Japan, resulting in the culling of 17.71 million birds, including chickens found infected at poultry farms.

The infection spread even among rare birds in the wild that are subject to protection under the law.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

According to the Environment Ministry and other organizations, about 1,500 hooded cranes and white-necked cranes were found either dead or debilitated in Kagoshima Prefecture, while in Hokkaido the HPAI virus was found in a dead white-tailed eagle. All of these birds are designated by the central government as endangered species.

Even at bird-breeding facilities, including zoos, the virus spread due to the entry of wild birds carrying the virus. At five facilities in the country, about 15 birds, including white pelicans, were found infected, some of which were deemed irrecoverable and euthanized. Even among those birds not infected, about 40 birds were killed as an anti-epidemic measure.

Birds at zoos, in principle, are not subject to the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law, which makes it obligatory for owners to put down infected domestic animals. But to avoid the spread of infection, there are many cases in which infected birds are put down with the judgment of zoo operators.

To reduce such sacrifices, Yoshihiro Sakoda, a professor of virology at Hokkaido University, and others will push forward the development of therapeutic methods using antiviral medicine for humans.

As a starter, rare birds being protected under the law will be subject to treatment, which could also be utilized at zoos.

Through past research using infected birds, including chickens, the university conducted experiments to compare the efficacy of several medicines, and found Shionogi’s Xofluza to be the most effective.

In coming months, the researchers will measure the blood drug level — the amount of drug compounds present in the bloodstream — of birds administered the drug and attempt to determine the appropriate dosage and dosing interval for each kind of bird.

Takao Shishido, a chief researcher at Shionogi, which will cooperate with the university through the gratuitous provision of the drug, said, “We will contribute to the research with our experience of developing the drug.”

In the latest outbreak of avian flu, people’s daily lives were also affected, especially by supply shortages of chicken eggs. Yet, the treatment of domestic fowl such as chickens is not allowed in order to contain the virus swiftly.

Therefore, even if Hokkaido University establishes therapeutic methods for birds, it does plan not to use them for domestic fowl.

Prof. Sakoda said: “It is heartbreaking to see animals be put down at zoos, places where we are supposed to learn about the preciousness of life. We want to save whatever lives we can.”