CSU statement regarding West Nile virus Research

Research into West Nile virus is essential to understanding how we can take steps to save human and animal lives from the effects of viruses transmitted by mosquitoes.

Our research into understanding how these viruses work in nature informs a larger body of work that helps science advance toward medical interventions and disease prevention. This ultimately benefits birds, animals and humans. Basic research to better understand these viruses contributes significantly to our understanding of mosquito-transmitted illnesses and the birds they affect.

Birds are important to scientific studies because they “host” many diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes. These viruses live in birds (and also make them sick); when these birds are bit by mosquitoes, the mosquitoes ingest the virus, and then pass it along to other birds, animals and humans that they bite. Humans and many other animals don’t contribute to the spread of the virus. They are ‘dead end hosts’ of the virus, meaning that a mosquito can bite an infected person but not carry the virus to another person or animal. Birds are essentially the reservoir for West Nile virus – along with many other viruses. How their bodies respond to these viruses is important information for scientists to understand. 

How these viruses behave and spread is an increasing concern among scientists due to environmental change, the rise of tropical megacities and increases in global travel and trade. West Nile virus, Chikungunya and Zika viruses are all good examples of how science is needed to understand the problem of viruses emerging in new places. These are major problems for the health of us all.

West Nile virus is unique because we can study key evolutionary processes in the actual mosquitoes and animals that influence it in nature, unlike viruses like Zika, which relies on people and nonhuman primates for maintenance in nature.

West Nile virus mainly infects birds, but also can infect bats, horses, dogs, cats, chipmunks, skunks, squirrels, rabbits, alligators and people. The virus can be fatal to animals as well as humans; it causes encephalomyelitis, which is inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. In fact, one third of horses that contract the disease can die, and nearly 20 percent won’t fully recover or will relapse.

Raptors have been fairly significantly affected here in Colorado from West Nile, and up to 70 percent of the crow population has been lost during particularly bad years in certain geographical locations. Understanding more about how the virus interacts with birds provides the scientific information that is needed to develop pathways to help birds, animals and humans.

At CSU, our institutional policies and procedures that ensure a thorough review of this research includes community members and experts. They confirm our practices meet or exceed the guidelines for the treatment of animals. This West Nile research was also externally reviewed by the National Institutes of Health, US Fish and Wildlife and Colorado Parks and Wildlife agencies.

In addition to laboratory studies, our researchers work actively with state officials and Colorado communities to reduce the spread of West Nile virus during summer months.

Such research is not merely an academic matter. It is critical to ensuring the health and welfare of animals and humans in Colorado and around the world.

During 2018, 37 crows were collected from the wild for West Nile virus studies looking at how the virus interacts with the birds that host the virus and spread it to other animals and humans.

Some activist groups have been intentionally misleading in public statements, including asserting that the university is being investigated for this research due to a lapse in a required state permit to collect birds. CSU has engaged in conversation with both the USDA and Colorado Parks and Wildlife regarding the assertion that there are investigations. We have confirmed that the USDA is not investigating, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife has told the university that it remains in support of the academic research Colorado State is conducting with this human health and safety project. 

Two permits are required to collect wild birds; one federal permit and one state permit. The annual federal permit was current during this time, but due to a clerical error there was an inadvertent lapse in the annual state permit during the time birds were collected in 2018. Prior to 2018, the researcher had both the annual state and federal permits for collection dating back to 2013. CSU communicated this error to the sponsor of the work – the National Institutes of Health. We also are reviewing our protocols tracking processes to add additional checks to ensure licensing is in place. All state and federal permits were up to date for 2019 and have been updated for 2020.