Bird flu reaches Antarctica

Bird flu has been confirmed in samples of dead skuas found by Argentine scientists near the Primavera base in Antarctica.

This discovery helps prepare national polar programs to prevent the transmission of diseases to humans and, most importantly, to prevent infection between humans.

Scientists at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), under the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, have confirmed for the first time the presence of a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in Antarctica.

A team of scientists led by CSIC researcher Antonio Alcamami, working at the Spanish Antarctic base “Gabriel de Castilla” on the island of Decepción, confirmed the presence of the virus on February 24 this year. In particular, it was detected in two samples of dead skuas (skuas) discovered by Argentine scientists near the Argentine base Primavera Antarctica.

The sample is taken using the greatest possible protective measures to prevent the virus from being transmitted to humans. Once samples are collected, any viruses present are immediately inactivated so they can be safely tested. The samples were then transported by the Argentine Joint Antarctic Patrol, with all security measures in place, to the Spanish Antarctic base Gabriel de Castilla on the island of Decepción, where they were analyzed by CSIC researchers Ángela Vázquez and Antonio Alqui.

The analysis concluded conclusively that the birds were infected with the H5 strain of avian influenza and that at least one of the dead birds contained a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus. These tests include PCR specific for the influenza virus and the H5 subtype, followed by sequencing of the protease cleavage site, thereby detecting the presence of the avian influenza virus with 100% certainty.

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This confirmation was possible thanks to international collaboration, especially with Argentina, and the coordination of the Spanish Polar Committee. International Antarctic organizations that collaborated include the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), which were informed of the discoveries under the Antarctic Treaty.

Concern about wildlife

Although the virus is present on every continent except Australia, its emergence in Antarctica is particularly concerning due to the animals’ pre-existing vulnerability to climate change.

In recent years, this highly contagious disease has devastated animal and livestock populations and spread across the planet via migratory bird routes. Now the emergence of bird flu on the southernmost continent is threatening its unique fauna, including the famous penguins.

Bird flu

Prepare for bird flu

This discovery will make it possible to develop national polar programs aimed at preventing the transmission of the disease to humans and, above all, infection between humans.

This discovery shows for the first time that bird flu viruses have reached Antarctica, despite the distance and natural barriers that separate this place from other continents. The finding could also explain bird deaths recorded during the Antarctic summer.

The variant has been found in several locations in the Northern Hemisphere and, since last summer, in the Southern Hemisphere. This virus has recently been described on sub-Antarctic islands, but although significant mortality has been reported in some Antarctic bird species, no country has yet detected the presence of this virus in Antarctica.

Spain introduced a protocol against highly pathogenic avian influenza in November before the start of the campaign in Antarctica, which all participants in the program strictly adhered to.

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