An outbreak of bird flu in New England claimed the lives of more than 330 seals in 2022, fueling fears that a species may be jumping to mammals — and humans could be next.
Researchers at Tufts University found that these animals were perishing in Maine in June and July, around the same time the team determined that more than 1,000 seabirds in the region were infected.
Dr. Ryan Miller, an infectious disease physician at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, shared Health Day that experts are very concerned if a virus spreads to mammals “simply because they are closely related to humans.”
The research team found evidence that the virus mutated in a small number of seals, which could lead to new strains that can survive different environments.
Last year, hundreds of seals were found dead on Maine beaches. Scientists determined that they were infected with bird flu. This means the virus could jump to mammals — and humans could be next
The avian flu outbreak began early last year and is the largest in recorded history, affecting more than 200 million domestic and wild birds worldwide.
It has already leaked onto mammals such as minks, foxes, raccoons and bears, raising fears that it may soon acquire disturbing new mutations that could cause it to cause a human pandemic. At the beginning of this month, China announced two human cases.
The US has not seen any human infections, but Tuft University’s research has caught the attention of the country’s scientific community.
HPAI is more commonly known as bird flu and the H5N1 strain is responsible for approximately 60 million poultry deaths in the US as of October 2020, with similar numbers in Europe.
The researchers have been monitoring birds and some mammals for bird flu since January 2022, shortly after H5N1 crossed the Atlantic from Europe.
Postdoctoral researcher Kaitlin Sawatzki said in a rack“Because of the genetic data we collected, we were the first to see a virus strain unique to New England.
“The dataset allows us to answer more meaningful questions about which animals transmit the virus to which animals and how the virus changes.”
Scientists have confirmed that H5N1 is nearly 100 percent lethal to all infected birds, but the dead seals suggest it is deadly in wild animals as well.
It has already been leaked onto mammals such as minks, foxes, raccoons and bears, raising fears that it may soon develop troubling new mutations that could cause it to cause a human pandemic. The seals found in Maine are not shown on this map
The study found that all seals that tested positive had died at the time of sampling or succumbed shortly afterwards.
However, the team does not yet know whether the seals have transmitted the virus to each other.
“To get strong evidence of mammal-to-mammal transmission, you need two things: a lot of infected animals and time,” Sawatzki explains.
‘Time for the virus to mutate, and time for the mutated virus to be transferred to another seal.
‘As the virus gets mutations, we can see shared mutations in the sequences that are only specific to mammals and have not been seen before in a bird.
“We had the numbers, but this outbreak didn’t last long enough to provide evidence of seal-to-seal transmission.”
The study follows news of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who died last month from H5N1 avian flu, making her the first victim of 2023.
Scientists are vigilant when it comes to monitoring transmission to humans.
Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told HealthDay News, “It’s a potential risk.
The odds of that happening, I think, are still pretty slim compared to other risks we have. But it’s a real risk and it’s something we obviously have to be prepared for, something we have to pay very close attention to.”
The study follows news of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who died last month from the H5N1 avian flu, making her the first victim of 2023.
Bean Narong died on February 22 after contracting the virus in impoverished Rolaing Village in southeastern Prey Veng province.