Despite opposition, board OKs plan to import coronavirus samples for UH research

Despite opposition, board OKs plan to import coronavirus samples for UH research
File photo of a testing lab in Hawaii. (Source: Hawaii News Now/file)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Despite opposition from the state Health Department, the Board of Agriculture approved a UH request Tuesday to important coronavirus samples for research.

The University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine said it needs the samples for vaccine studies.

But state Health Department experts and state Department of Agriculture staff said it wasn’t a good idea to import the virus ― officially known as SARS-CoV2 betacoronavirus ― because the federal government could raise its danger level. At that point, the UH medical school wouldn’t be authorized to handle it.

One of those who supported the plan to import the virus was Board of Agriculture member Nicholas Comerford, who is also dean of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture.

He said blocking critical research of the virus at UH was wrong-headed.

“It seems like we are making an honest effort to be disengaged from trying to solve a problem that is affecting the entire country,” Comerford said.

“The arguments that I am hearing don’t make any sense to me.”

The researchers said they can’t use local samples of the virus because researchers across the country are working from a standard set of strains called “reference strains,” which must be imported.

That way any discoveries made in Hawaii could be tested elsewhere.

After discussion, the board unanimously rejected the staff recommendation and voted to improve importing the virus.

Comerford and medical school researchers said if the federal risk designation changes any material could be destroyed.

The research at the UH medical school is partly funded by the city.

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