Avian flu reaches mainland Antarctica, confirm scientists

Discovery triggers need to prepare polar programmes to avoid transmission of infection to humans

Scientists have confirmed bird flu among two dead skuas from Primavera, the Antarctic base of Argentinian scientific research station located on the Antarctic Peninsula. A skua in Antarctica for representation: iStock

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has infected bird populations in mainland Antarctica for the first time, threatening penguin populations.

Scientists from Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre of the Higher Council for Scientific Research, Spain have confirmed the presence of H5N1 virus causing the bird flu among two dead skuas from Primavera, the Antarctic base of Argentinian scientific research station located on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Another confirmed case of a wandering albatross has also been reported, but on Bird Island in the British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

Read more: First cases of avian flu found in Antarctic region

The confirmation came on February 24, 2024 after the samples were collected earlier this month and analysed. Other suspected cases of fur seals, Antarctic fur seal, south polar skua and kelp gull have been reported from Rosita, Stromness, Bahia Esperanza or Hope Bay, according to Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

A statement from the Spanish government read, “Analysis has conclusively shown that the birds were infected with the H5 subtype of avian influenza and at least one of the dead birds contained the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.”

These analyses consisted of specific PCRs for the influenza virus and the H5 subtype, followed by sequencing of the protease cutting region, which defines with 100 per cent certainty the presence of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus.

The discovery shows that the avian flu has reached the mainland region despite the vast distances and natural barriers that separate it from other continents, the scientists noted.

Read more: Surging bird flu cases may increase human infection risk, warn UN agencies & WOAH

“This finding could also explain the bird deaths recorded during the Antarctic summer,” the scientists said.

Earlier in January, HPAI was also reported in polar bears, confirming the presence of the virus in the Arctic. The polar bear is suspected to have fed on an infected carcass of a bird. 

The HPAI clade H5N1 2.3. 4.4b has infected and killed millions of birds across continents since 2021. The presence of the variant has been confirmed in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. 

In South America alone, more than 500,000 seabirds, including penguins, pelicans and boobies, have died. 

A preprint research paper released in November 2023 anticipated the fears of the virus reaching the mainland region and thereby raising concerns of mass mortality among isolated but densely populated penguin colonies. 

Read more: Bird flu outbreak in Andhra: Could H5N1 spark next pandemic? New paper warns of risks

The scientist feared it could cause “one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times”. 

The researchers from Spain have advised preparing national polar programmes to avoid the transmission of infection to humans.

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