Scientists scrambling to determine if virulent avian flu is airborne

Scientists are scrambling to determine if the worst avian flu influenza in U.S. history is airborne, and if so, how far it can travel.

By last week, more than 45 million birds in the U.S, mostly located in poultry and egg production states in the Midwest, were reported to be infected by the highly virulent virus. The virus has hit hard at poultry production facilities as well as in wild flocks of birds.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture works toward finding a vaccine to combat the virus, researchers at the University of Minnesota are looking into whether the strain is airborne, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported.

Montserrat Torremorell, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, and her colleagues recently visited 6 infected poultry farms located in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska looking for genetic material of the virus in the air. At 5 of the 6 farms they checked, the team found the virus inside barns and just outside the structures, but not at extended distances outside the barns, the newspaper said.

"Viruses don't have wings," Torremorell told the StarTribune. But, she added, the virus can stick to feathers, dust, water droplets, feed, dried fecal material, truck tires and the soles of shoes. If the virus can move with the wind, even for just short distances, a farm next door but upwind would be safer than one downwind and farther away.

"The old model for looking at containment was the concentric circle model," Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, told the newspaper, adding that if the virus is airborne "it blows the whole model for quarantine."

Last month, the U.S. government approved an additional $330 million in funding to contain the outbreak.

- check out the StarTribune story