The US Geologic Survey—with help from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Y-K Delta subsistence hunters— released research this month about Western Alaska’s role as an international crossroads for migratory birds and how those birds transmit avian flu viruses between each other.
The research began after contaminated poultry spread the H5N1 virus in China during 2005. Afterwards, multiple US agencies including Fish and Wildlife launched nationwide research studies to find potentially infected birds across the US.
“And one of the high priority areas as part of that sampling was Alaska because of the known overlap of migratory pathways of birds between Asia and North America in Alaska,” Alaska Science Center Branch Chief for Wetlands and Terrestrial ecology researcher John Pearce says.
Subsistence bird hunters in the Y-K Delta helped provide Pearce and other researchers 24,000 samples from 82 species. They didn’t find the high pathogen H5N1 in the samples, but they did find low pathogen forms.
“The common cold variety,” Pearce says.
A bird cold that is, and not one that transfers to humans.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, there’s been no confirmed case of wild birds passing avian influenza to humans. But Pearce says it’s still important to learn how birds transfer viruses between other birds as they migrate to the Y-K Delta from different parts of the world.
It’s like how a sick kid spreads a bug at school, but instead, picture a bunch of sick kids from three different schools all going on a field trip to the same museum.
“Again one of the characteristics of the avian Flu virus is that they have these 8 different genes and if two viruses infect one host, one bird, then they’ll swap those genes,” Pearce says.
He says viruses can quickly become pulled apart to create new bugs.
“Or hybrid viruses, if you will,” Pearce says.
These virus interactions aren’t out of the ordinary and they’re relatively harmless. But sometimes, along comes a perfect viral storm of genetic combinations. It happened after viruses from different animals rearranged into the H1N1 virus better known as Swine Flu.
“That virus was a combination of pig flu genes, avian flu genes and human flu genes. So that virus was swapping virus gene segments among different species of animals and it came up with a particularly bad flu strain,” Pearce says.
Pearce says migratory birds around the world have low pathogen avian influenza and the high pathogen viruses, like H5N1, are found in poultry.
Researchers are now focusing their efforts on sampling birds from the Alaskan Peninsula as they continue to track bird migrations.