Hawaii state health lab ready to detect first signs of swine flu

Dr. Chris Whelen
Dr. Chris Whelen

By Mari-Ela David - bio | email

PEARL CITY (KHNL) - The Hawaii Department of Health's lab is on standby, ready to look for any signs of the swine flu virus, and catch it as early as possible, if or when it reaches the islands.

In an exclusive look inside the lab in Pearl City, staff members handle potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses such as West Nile, and Avian Flu and the swine flu as well, if or when it makes its way to Hawaii.

From bioterrorism, to environmental hazards, and infectious diseases, the state lab is ground zero for testing potentially dangerous agents.

"We work with the State for disease outbreak control, disease investigation," said Dr. Chris Whelen, lab director.

At the virology wing, staff members are on standby, preparing for a possible swine flu pandemic. In one lab, scientists can take samples from sick patients, and check to see if the influenza virus is present.

"Once you determine the virus is there, you need to see what kind of virus it is. Is it the normal seasonal H1 or is it the swine flu variant of H1," said Dr. Whelen.

To find out, the virus is grown in another lab, to see if it infects patient cells. If it does, researchers can identify the virus. And if it turns out to be swine flu, the state lab will alert the Centers for Disease Control.

"We serve as the early warning and once we see what hasn't been seen before, such as the case with the swine flu, then we need to mobilize more resources than we have just here in Hawaii to respond," said Dr. Whelen.

The lab has not received any samples with the swine flu virus so far. But if it does, it can process, confirm, and send a red flag within 24 hours.

On Tuesday, KHNL will show how that 24-hour window is possible.

It's an exclusive look at the Emergency Response Lab, where scientists can not only test for swine flu in humans, but also in animals.