April 21, 2024

Avian flu has reached continents Antarctica for the first time, officials confirmed.

The H5N1 virus was found Friday in two dead vultures called skuas near Primavera Base, the Argentine scientific research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Additional suspected cases have been reported in brown skua, Antarctic skua and kelp skua in Hope Bay, also on the Antarctic Peninsula, according to data of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

“This discovery demonstrates for the first time that the highly pathogenic bird flu virus has reached Antarctica, despite the distance and natural barriers that separate it from other continents,” said a Spanish. government report on Sunday.

These are the first confirmed cases on the continent itself, showing that the virus is spreading in the region, most likely via migratory birds. This H5N1 outbreak is thought to be dead millions of wild birds worldwide since 2021, and has spread to every continent except Oceania.

Avian flu has arrived the wider Antarctic region in October last year when it was reported on sub-Antarctic islands. The virus was first detected in the British overseas territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from the continent of Antarctica. It has also been found in the Falkland Islands, which are 600 miles northwest of South Georgia.

The Argentinian research station on Cape Primavera where scientists detected the first cases of H5N1 on the continent of Antarctica. Photo: Gerald Corsi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Initially it was reported in birds such as gulls, skua and terns, but has since been found in albatross, penguins and southern petrels. It has also spread to Antarctic mammals, with mass deaths of elephant seals and fur seals. The virus is also tearing through wildlife populations in the Arctic. In December it was confirmed that the first polar bear died of H5N1.

“There are now many reports of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) affecting several species in the Antarctic regions this season,” said Matthew Dryden of the UK Health Safety Agency. “It may not have been reported on the Antarctic continent until now because of the difficulties in accessing and sampling wildlife [there].”

The dead birds from the continent of Antarctica were found by Argentine scientists and sent to scientists from the Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa in Madrid, who worked at the Spanish Antarctic base on Deception Island.

“The problem is how long it will take before it is transferred to other species such as penguins. We have to monitor it,” said Antonio Alcamí, a researcher from the Spanish National Research Council who works at the Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa CSIC, which is based at the Spanish Antarctic base and tested the carcasses. “I’m afraid I think it will probably be transferred into penguins. The skuas live quite close, so there are many opportunities for transfer, but we’ll see.”

Previous outbreaks in South Africa, Chile and Argentina have shown that penguins are susceptible to the virus. Since H5N1 arrived in South America, more than 500,000 seabirds died from the disease, with penguins, pelicans and boobies among the worst hit.

Researchers wrote in a preprint research report in November last year: “If the virus does start to cause mass deaths in penguin colonies, it could signal one of the greatest ecological disasters of modern times.”

Diana Bell, the emeritus professor of conservation biology at the University of East Anglia, said the news was “unfortunately not surprising, given its previously reported presence on Antarctic islands in birds and elephant seals. It seems unlikely that the penguins there will not be infected.”

Dryden added: “Biosecurity is important so that people are not exposed to the virus. HPAI can rarely infect humans, but close, prolonged contact is necessary.”

While a number of wildlife sites have been closed to tourists to limit the spread of the virus, Dryden said, little else can be done to stop it from spreading. “Nothing more can be done to limit transmission in wildlife and the outbreak will naturally have to resolve.”

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