Researcher Yasuhiro Tsukamoto’s flock of 500 ostriches is being enlisted into the global fight against swine flu by exploiting Japan’s practice of wearing masks in public to ward off allergies and colds.
Tsukamoto, 40, a veterinary professor at Kyoto Prefectural University, was part of a team that investigated the deaths of birds in 2004 when avian influenza hit farms in western Japan. The probe into the virus that killed three-fifths of infected people worldwide spurred him to produce flu-fighting antibodies from ostriches, which are resistant to infectious diseases.
In July, even before the new H1N1 outbreak surfaced, Tsukamoto began selling, for about ¥190 each, face masks lined with the ostrich antibodies. The new flu circling the globe has heightened the nation’s obsession with wearing face masks, leading shops to sell out plain white surgical types as well as patterned varieties, even those with Mickey Mouse themes.
“Masks have become part of social etiquette as they give Japanese a sense of security that they and those around them aren’t spreading diseases,” said Masataka Yoshikawa, who tracks consumer behavior at market researcher Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living.
Tsukamoto’s Kyoto-based Ostrich Pharma Corp. makes 1.6 kg of ostrich egg-derived antibodies per month, enough to produce 32 million masks. Since last July, 12 million of the masks have been sold through sites such as Amazon.co.jp, where they are priced around ¥8,400 for 36.
The masks are coated with antibodies against four flu virus strains, including the H5N1 avian variety. The ostrich-based antibodies envelop viruses that come in contact with the mask and disable the germs so a wearer won’t get the flu, Tsukamoto said his research shows.
“I discovered ostriches have a stronger immune system against many infectious diseases among birds,” Tsukamoto said from his farm in Kobe.
Tsukamoto’s research comes as drugmakers GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Sanofi-Aventis SA, and CSL Ltd. prepare to manufacture swine flu vaccines, and health authorities track the virus to determine if it mutates into a more serious form during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.
As of Friday, worldwide infections of H1N1 swine flu totaled 15,510, including 99 deaths, or a fatality rate of less than 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Japan has about 370 cases, based on health ministry figures, the highest number in Asia, where no deaths have been reported.
Worry over the spread of swine flu has led face masks to be sold out in Japanese stores. Masks with prints of Winnie the Pooh from Namco Bandai Holdings Inc. are priced at ¥198 each on Kenko.com Inc.’s shopping site, 10 times the cost of Unicharm Corp.’s plain versions that come in a pack of 30.
Concern about the increasing reach of the virus also caused business and school trips to be canceled and hotel occupancy to drop. Hyogo and Osaka prefectures have been hardest hit, accounting for 95 percent of cases, health ministry spokesman Ito Mihara said last Wednesday.
A total of 13 conferences had been canceled at the Osaka International Convention Center after the first locally transmitted case was found in Japan on May 16, spokesman Hironobu Matsuo said May 21.
“Virulence is weak and the death rate is low, so it has little impact on Japan’s economy for now,” Takahide Kiuchi, chief economist at Nomura Holdings Inc., said Wednesday. “We will have to be careful about the economic impact if the virus mutates in the future and the government orders restrictions on business activities.”
Hiroko Ishiga, 70, waited in a line of about 50 people mostly wearing masks in front of an Allied Hearts Holdings Co.’s Lifort drugstore on May 22, hoping to secure masks after failing at two shops.
“I have only 20 masks left at home,” Ishiga said. “I even tried to call my family in Tottori Prefecture, but masks were not available there either.”
Until the outbreak eases, Yukiko Yamaguchi of Kobe, who has a 10-month-old girl, may move to her parents’ home in Kagawa Prefecture.
“I am even considering evacuating this polluted area,” Yamaguchi said. “Some might say we are overreacting. I just don’t want to lose my only daughter.”
“We are telling people to wear masks,” Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said May 22 at a briefing in Kobe. “I highly thank my citizens for taking care of their own health.”
The flu virus is spread when respiratory droplets that normally fall to the ground or the nearest surface within a meter go farther due to sneezing, coughing or talking, said Peter Cordingley, a WHO spokesman in Manila.
People who aren’t well or who are taking care of someone who’s infected should wear masks to protect themselves and others, he said.
“Masks probably serve little purpose in a normal social setting,” Cordingley said by e-mail. “But WHO recognizes that the use of masks is a standard response in Japan to outbreaks of respiratory disease and does not advise against them.”
Researcher Tsukamoto first tried killing ostriches to derive antibodies from their blood, an effort that “wasn’t worth it.”
“The breakthrough was when I managed to make the antibodies I wanted from their egg yolks,” he said. “The amount of antibodies that can be made from one ostrich egg equals that from 10 liters of their blood, or the amount in one ostrich.”
Antibodies are produced by the immune system in response to infections and illnesses. Versions have been created in laboratories to mute overactive immune systems in some diseases.
Tsukamoto’s research had shown antibodies produced from ostrich eggs to be effective in eradicating avian flu as well as preventing its spread.
In one study, a batch of chicks with avian flu was injected with an antibody obtained from ostriches, while a second group of infected birds wasn’t. At the end of five days, 75 percent of the chicks in the first group survived with no symptoms, while all in the second died, according to the study published in Molecular Medicine Reports in 2008.
Tsukamoto tested the efficacy of antibody-coated filters in preventing the virus’s spread in another study. He placed infected chicks in two boxes, one with a filter infused with antibodies and the other without, and put them in two separate cages containing healthy birds. All healthy chicks in the cage with the antibody filter were alive after four days, while only half survived in the other.
Tsukamoto is now testing whether his antibodies are safe and effective as treatments in the event of a pandemic involving a virus as deadly as the bird flu.
“I am building my stockpile of antibodies in anticipation of a life-or-death scenario,” the researcher said after administering injections to his birds on the farm. “I already have enough to make masks for the whole world.”
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