A Bird Flu Spreads in Seals. Could Humans Be Next?

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Last fall, 162 harbor seal pups mysteriously washed up dead on the shores of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Puzzled, scientists conducted autopsies on five of the animals, which suggested that a respiratory infection had killed them. Samples of the seals’ tissue were then analyzed further and a common virus was discovered: a new strain of influenza that appeared to have evolved from H3N8, a bird flu virus first isolated in North American ducks in 2002.

The virus’ potential leap from birds to mammals raises questions about whether it could jump to humans as well. Avian flu viruses have spread to humans before — notably H5N1, the scariest type. But while H5N1 spreads easily among birds, often killing them, it infects humans only rarely, though when it does, it’s highly lethal: since 2003, there have been 607 cases of human H5N1 worldwide, leading to 358 deaths.

In late 2011, an even scarier development: researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands announced that they’d managed to create mutated strains of deadly H5N1 in their labs that passed easily between mammals, developments that led to fierce debate over the wisdom of publishing the findings (the fear was that the data could be dangerous in a bioterrorist’s hands) and to a moratorium on all further research. (Eventually, a federal advisory board allowed the two scientific teams to publish their findings in Nature and in Science, but the moratorium remains.)

(MORE: H5N1: Bird Flu Pandemic May Be Closer than Thought, Study Finds)

Meanwhile, it seems that Mother Nature has been tinkering too. Researchers, reporting in the journal mBio, found that the new seal virus was distinct from H3N8 by 37 mutations, some of which have been previously identified as being necessary for flu to adapt to mammals. The new strain, being called seal H3N8, evolved the ability to spread from seal to seal, killing them; bird flu has been found in seals before, but it hasn’t spread between the animals. “[H3N8 is] something that’s been circulating for a while in birds, but we’ve not had this sort of die-off relating to this virus in the past,” study author and virus expert Dr. Ian Lipkin of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University told the BBC.

The authors say the new virus has mutations that allow it to live in both birds as well as mammals. It has also evolved to make it more likely to cause severe symptoms, and has the ability to target a protein found in the human respiratory tract, the BBC reports. Although birds carry a wide variety of flu viruses, which sometimes make the jump into mammals, they almost never acquire the ability to spread from mammal to mammal.

The worry is that if the new virus continues to adapt and thrive in seals, it will acquire other mutations that could make it likely to pass to humans. Further, the scientists’ study of seal cells found that they have receptors for both bird and mammalian flu viruses, making the animals a potentially good host for flu viruses to mix, evolve and learn how to adapt to other hosts. Pigs also have this hosting ability, which is why they’re known for giving rise to new hybrid flu strains — such as H1N1, the “swine flu” of 2009 — that infect humans.

The seal “could be the equivalent of an aquatic pig,” Lipkin told the New York Times, noting that the new seal H3N8 virus is “clearly a virus for which we need some surveillance.”

(PHOTOS: The Bird Flu Outbreaks in 2008)

It’s still not clear what exactly the findings mean for seals or humans, but the authors conclude that the natural emergence of a virus that can be transmitted between mammals and that was discovered in a mammal that can be infected with multiple flu viruses “must be considered a significant threat to both wildlife and public health.”

In any case, the discovery of the new virus is a reminder that we need to step up our efforts to monitor potential new pandemics and prepare for them. “It’s important to realize that viruses can emerge through routes that we haven’t considered. We need to be alert to those risks and ready to act on them,” said study editor Anne Moscona of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, in a statement.

MORE: Bird Flu: More Common, Less Deadly than We Thought?

8 comments
Hamid Ashouri
Hamid Ashouri

As fast as we go forward, there will be new types of diseases to hurt people

Linda Hutson
Linda Hutson

it's a population control, and man has created viruses to learn  how to cure viruses but there are some out there that are all about doing away with the less mis fortune people. people can think what they want but it does happen out there in the World 

morningdove
morningdove

Stay healthy. Eat well, rest, exercise - don't buy the fear mongering.

5c0779373
5c0779373

@Outofdate:disqus Man didn't create viruses. They've been on this Earth longer than any other organism and will continue on long after we're gone. They weren't created for population control (although I have my doubts about HIV/AIDS) because Mother Nature can take care of that just fine. I reccommend the below wikipedia article if you're still confused about humans magically creating viruses or what a virus even is.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V...

Outofdate
Outofdate

Mother nature didn't create these viruses, humans did. How about we get that right. Why are all these mad science folk creating more strains of flu, mutating them on purpose? The answer might be to knock off millions of the planets human animals.

Mother nature my foot.

richardparker09
richardparker09

You have no idea what you are talking about.  These researchers created these strains to get an idea of what is necessary for the virus to obtain virulence in humans.  This allows us to preemptively work on vaccines in the case of a potential switch to human hosts.  The government allowed theses scientists to publish their in order that the scientific community could prepare for the worst case scenario.  These viruses in seals were not directly created by humans.  They are a result of our current livestock practices.

timetomarket
timetomarket

I think you need to read the article properly first. This new strain was not created in a lab but mutated on its own inside seals that came into contact with birds carrying the bird flu strain.

Mutations do not need humans to occur and naturally occur to increase the virus fitness and infection rates. Its a perfectly natural process that occurs on a much more rapid time scale as the number of descendent copies of a virus/bacteria number in the trillions of trillions.

Its is highly illogical to say humans created a naturally occurring new virus strain that wasn't even in contact with humans.

Those "mad" science folks are the ones who can actually help stop and mitigate the spread of a potentially catastrophic diseases amongst humanity. Without the "crazy" research we will just be sitting ducks. The backlash against research creates a dangerous chilling effect where research will tend away from dealing with potentially new deadly viruses because of the "stigma" attached with it.

MotherNatureLovesYall
MotherNatureLovesYall

oh really?  "mother nature didn't create these viruses" -- your comment is idiotic and incorrect.  whoever made this comment should either get an education or stick to commenting on something they are informed about like Monster Truck Contests.