SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) — Scientists have discovered a new strain of avian flu in the Antarctic after testing a group of Adelie penguins.
“We found that this virus was unlike anything else detected in the world,” said Aeron Hurt of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.
The flu virus, H11N2, was found in a small number of members of a group of Adelie penguins tested at two locations on the Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s northernmost region. It does not appear to cause illness in the birds.
“Probably, in the region we were sampling, the Antarctic Peninsula, it’s most likely that migratory birds are travelling down from North and South America,” Hurt said.
The strain is described in a study published in mBio, the online open access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.
Researchers collected swabs from 301 Adelie penguins and blood from 270.
They then used a laboratory technique called real-time reverse transcription-PCR to examine the virus’s genetic blueprint and found avian influenza virus genetic material in eight samples: six adult penguins and two chicks.
“I think this particular strain is not a great deal of concern to wildlife health, but what it does show is that this is now definitive evidence that AIVs do get down to Antarctica,” Hurt said.
The researchers used ferrets, the most common animal for influenza testing, to determine that the virus did not infect the animal.
“We did some experiments to assess whether the virus has potential for humans to become infected,” he said.
“It’s probably unlikely that humans are likely to be infected by this particular virus.”
Two strains of avian flu have occurred in Southeast Asia over the past two years — H7N9 and H5N1 — causing deaths among humans and wildlife.
In February, a H10N8 strain previously unknown in humans caused one death in China, and in April, an outbreak of bird flu on a California quail farm prompted five key export markets to bar imports of poultry from the state.