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SSF-Svalbard Science Forum

Prevalence and pandemic potential of recently discovered avian influenza infections in Svalbard´s Seabirds

Tildelt: kr 68 999




2021 - 2021

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We are on the precipice of the age of pandemics. The frequency of epidemics are increasing, with many of these viruses coming from animals like SARS, Ebola, COVID-19 and the bird flu (H7N9, H5N6, H5N8, H5Nx, H10N8). In 2019 we were the first group to search for, and detect, active avian influenza viruses (AIVs) circulating in seabirds during their breeding season in Svalbard (after finding antibodies in 2017, Lee et al., 2020). We found active infections in all species studied (i.e. kittiwakes, guillemot, arctic skua, great skua and glaucous gulls). It was a preliminary study that has highlighted the need for us to monitor these populations and their virus infections closely. Our preliminary data also suggests that the Brünnichs guillemot is suffering from the highest prevalence of infections, corresponding with the steepest populations declines. However, a greater sample size is now required to achieve statistical confidence. Further, avian flus have been largely overlooked this year (2020) due to resources being focused on COVID-19. However reports in early November 2020 have started to come (first from Korea and now throughout Southern Europe-presumably heading north) of a new highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza, causing mortality in wild bird populations. It is likely the over-wintering populations of Svalbardian seabirds will be exposed to this new strain. The consequences of which are unknown, but are unlikely to be positive. The risk with new strains is recombination with preexisting strains, which means, not only an increased risk to the health of the birds, but also an increased risk of spill-over into new hosts, such as marine mammals (severe die offs have occurred in marine mammals due to AIV cross over) and humans. This project aims to continue our surveillance of AIV in Svalbard and to deterministically characterise the epidemiology of infections in Svalbards breeding seabirds while assessing the risk to marine mammals and humans.


SSF-Svalbard Science Forum