MON AM News: UW-Madison professor developing avian flu vaccine; Advocates calling for adoption of electric school buses in Wisconsin

— As government officials investigate a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Wisconsin, a UW-Madison professor is creating a vaccine to protect birds from the virus. 

Adel Talaat, a professor of microbiology in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, is using genetic sequencing data from a number of different avian influenza strains to develop the vaccine. It’s not available yet for commercial purposes but Talaat hopes to contribute to future outbreak prevention efforts, according to a release from the university. 

“When dealing with animals, especially poultry, it’s important to keep in mind that we would need to be able to vaccinate an entire flock,” he said. “We also need to think about how to make this technology inexpensive so it will be economically viable.”

After a case of HPAI was identified earlier this month at a poultry farm in Jefferson County, the site was quarantined by state officials, a release from the USDA shows. The federal agency says it’s working with local partners to “actively look for the disease” in commercial operations, live bird markets and in populations of migratory wild birds. 

The UW-Madison release shows HPAI viruses are “highly lethal” to farmed poultry but aren’t as dangerous for wild birds that can quickly spread them. 

The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has been tracking the spread of HPAI as these migrating birds have spread the virus around the United States in recent months. WVDL Director Keith Paulson says in the release the lab has been “really good at controlling the virus by finding it quickly and establishing these control zones.” A previous HPAI outbreak occurred in 2015, according to a DATCP release. 

Meanwhile, the WVDL is expanding a facility in Barron to improve its testing abilities after $10 million in related funding was approved in the 2021-2023 biennial budget, the UW-Madison release shows. It’s expected to be finished by 2026. 

See the UW-Madison release: 

See a recent DATCP release on the state’s HPAI response: 

— Environmental and consumer protection advocacy groups are calling for broad adoption of electric school buses in Wisconsin. 

In a recent report, the Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center, WISPIRG Foundation and the Frontier Group outline the potential for addressing environmental concerns and improving energy grid resilience by transitioning to electric school buses. 

“We need both increased federal funding in electric buses and in climate solutions that help green the grid,” Eve Lukens-Day, a spokeswoman for the WERPC, said in a statement. “This way, we can accelerate the rollout of these clean vehicles while cleaning up the energy that powers them all at the same time.” 

The report is called “Electric School Buses and the Grid: Unlocking the power of school transportation to build resilience and a clean energy future.” It shows if every yellow school bus currently in use in the state were replaced with an electric bus “equipped with the right vehicle-to-grid technology” the state’s electricity storage capacity would be expanded by 1,281 gigawatt hours, or enough capacity to power over 39,000 average homes for a day. 

Report authors argue that because buses are only used during short periods of the day, they could be used as renewable energy storage units at other times. They say the buses could provide additional power during “unexpected demand spikes” or emergency power when outages occur. 

“Transitioning to all-electric buses would first and foremost ensure our children have a clean and healthy ride to school,” said WISPIRG Foundation Transportation Associate Mac Dressman. “But beyond that, it also provides an excellent opportunity to make dramatic improvements to Wisconsin’s electric grid, providing significant new benefits for communities.” 

The report points to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program, which will provide $5 billion over five years to replace existing buses with “clean and zero-emission models” following the recent passage of the federal bipartisan infrastructure law.

“The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act got the ball rolling on school bus electrification, but we can’t pump the breaks [sic] yet,” Lukens-Day said. 

See the full report here:

— Gov. Tony Evers says continued funding for local public health efforts is needed to ensure Wisconsin is prepared for the next pandemic. 

“You’ll see this in the next budget … we will find ways to enhance public health, especially at the county level, because that’s where the hard work actually happens,” Evers said during a recent luncheon. 

Evers highlighted the role of health insurance navigators when asked by an audience member about the likelihood that thousands of Wisconsinites will lose their Medicaid coverage when the federal public health emergency is lifted. He said the state is spending “a fair amount of our federal money” to contract with navigators to help address that issue. 

“So that once that decision is made … each of those folks will have access to navigation to get them into one of the Obamacare market or other areas,” he said. “We’re going to take care of that by giving them the help to find more health insurance.” 

The Dem guv also pointed to his recent signing of bills related to the powerful opioid fentanyl as an example of bipartisanship between Republicans and Democrats in the state. He said he met last week with Reps. Jesse James, R-Altoona, and Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, and signed the bipartisan bills to increase penalties for illegal manufacturing and distribution of the drug and to decriminalize fentanyl testing strips. 

“I think if we collectively looked at the things that we do achieve together, we’ll be better off as a state,” he said. 

See more coverage of the luncheon at 

Watch a video of the luncheon here: 

— Health officials are tracking rising COVID-19 virus levels in wastewater in Green Bay and Milwaukee’s Jones Island. 

“Those are sites where we’re seeing some consistent increases that would be indicative of increasing community transmission of COVID-19,” said Dr. Jonathan Meiman, state epidemiologist for environmental and occupational health. 

During a call with reporters Friday, he said wastewater monitoring in Wisconsin is a “useful supplement” to other surveillance systems and can often provide insight on community-level virus activity before other forms of testing. 

This monitoring effort is conducted by the Department of Health Services, the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene and UW-Milwaukee, the DHS site shows. It aims to provide local public health officials with early warnings of potential increases in cases. 

While the DHS site shows a “major increase” in concentrations of the COVID-19 virus in several other areas including Appleton, De Pere and Platteville, Meiman said “it’s probably too early to tell” if that indicates cases will be rising in those areas. He said officials will have to gather more data to confirm those trends. 

“In some particularly smaller systems, we may have more variability when we get at those low levels, and some observed increases may be kind of some natural variation when we’re measuring virus concentrations that are that low,” he said. 

See a map from DHS of wastewater monitoring trends: 

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