Hun­ters aid virus re­search

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion is wor­ried that an avian and hu­man in­fluenza virus might mix, cre­at­ing a strain eas­ily passed from per­son to per­son, trig­ger­ing a pan­demic where the dis­ease spreads rapidly around the world, in­fect­ing many peo­ple.

Field and Game - - VIRUS RESEARCH -

Field & Game Aus­tralia mem­bers will be on the front line of Aus­tralian ef­forts to cap­ture and study the virus.

The in­fluenza pan­demic of 1918–19 killed up to 50 mil­lion peo­ple, more than died dur­ing World War I. Dubbed ‘Span­ish Flu', it was the most dev­as­tat­ing epi­demic in recorded world his­tory.

Avian In­fluenza Virus is present in wild bird pop­u­la­tions around the world. Aus­tralia has a spe­cific strain that in­fects shore birds and is en­demic in wild duck pop­u­la­tions, although few die as a re­sult.

The con­cern for the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is the virus' abil­ity to evolve and spread. It has the po­ten­tial to dev­as­tate the poul­try in­dus­try and cause hu­man pan­demics, which is why re­searchers need to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the virus, its evo­lu­tion, and the risk for fu­ture vi­ral emer­gence.

Pro­fes­sor Mar­cel Klaassen has been col­lect­ing sam­ples in Aus­tralia and Antarc­tica to study AIV di­ver­sity, the evo­lu­tion­ary dy­nam­ics of AIV in wild birds and poul­try, and the role played by en­vi­ron­men­tal trans­mis­sion in AIV ecol­ogy.

Prof Klaassen can gather enough sam­ples from pen­guins in Antarc­tica and shore­birds in Aus­tralia through trap­ping but his best hope of cap­tur­ing the virus from wild duck pop­u­la­tions is swabs taken from har­vested birds by hun­ters.

“I've been do­ing it for a cou­ple of years al­ready in Aus­tralia,” he said.

“Avian In­fluenza is po­ten­tially a dan­ger­ous virus be­cause it not only in­fects poul­try but can spread to hu­mans, as seen with the H5N1 virus out­breaks in South­east Asia. “At the mo­ment there's not a real prob­lem be­cause you have to eat the birds in or­der to get the dis­ease but we are very wor­ried about it evolv­ing and chang­ing into a virus that can be trans­mit­ted from per­son to per­son.” Mem­bers from Gee­long Field & Game re­cently re­ceived train­ing in how to swab ducks and safely store the sam­ples for the re­search team.

“In birds, the virus likes the gut and res­pi­ra­tory tract, which is why we take our swabs from the lin­ings of the throat and at the end of the di­ges­tive tract,” Prof Klaassen said.

For the mem­bers, it was the first time they had ever looked for a duck's bum but it turned out to be a sim­ple process.

Each end of the cot­ton stick is placed in a sta­ble medium pro­vided by the re­searchers and put in the car fridge to keep cool.

Prof Klaassen said the more Field & Game mem­bers who par­tic­i­pated in the pro­ject, the higher the chance of cap­tur­ing and pre­serv­ing the virus for re­search. “The medium is to sta­bi­lize the virus so we can re­vive it and grow it in eggs and then study it,” he said.

Avian In­fluenza Virus has al­ways been around in wild birds but the dan­ger is it can evolve. So far, that evo­lu­tion, ex­cept for one case, has been in in­ten­sive poul­try where the high den­sity of birds is per­fect for the virus to spread. “The ge­netic ma­te­rial that forms the heart of the virus is very un­sta­ble, it

“In birds, the virus likes the gut and res­pi­ra­tory tract, which is why we take our swabs from the lin­ings of the throat and at the end of the di­ges­tive tract.”

Prof Klassen

mu­tates very rapidly, and two dif­fer­ent virus types can ex­change ge­netic ma­te­rial,” Prof Klaassen said. “We want to un­der­stand that process bet­ter and the pro­ject we have, to­gether with the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion and Syd­ney Univer­sity, is to get a bet­ter han­dle on how these viruses evolve in na­ture. “For that we have cho­sen two sites to do our re­search, one is in the Antarc­tic with pen­guins and the other is in Aus­tralia be­cause we are in­ter­ested in how en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and tem­per­a­ture af­fects the evo­lu­tion of these viruses. “We have a base­line and we are now in­ter­ested in how these viruses change over time, and for that we have se­lected two bird groups: ducks and shore­birds.”

In Vic­to­ria, trap­ping of mi­gra­tory shore­birds oc­curs over sum­mer but it would be im­pos­si­ble to get enough sam­ples from ducks in the same way.

Sam­ples from even a small per­cent­age of the ducks har­vested an­nu­ally in Vic­to­ria would pro­vide a valu­able data­base for re­searchers. “The idea is to get as many viruses as pos­si­ble from the wild,” Prof Klaassen said. “Peo­ple across the globe are really cu­ri­ous about how the evo­lu­tion of these viruses takes place; they are really wor­ried and there­fore cu­ri­ous.

“I'll start with wor­ried: it is not a mat­ter of if, but when a new pan­demic will oc­cur. It is go­ing to hap­pen, and we need to be pre­pared to limit the scale of the pan­demic; we don't want some­thing like the Span­ish Flu to re-oc­cur.”

Re­search to date has in­volved catch­ing ducks be­cause of the need for a va­ri­ety of sam­ples, in­clud­ing blood to look for an­ti­bod­ies, but the next phase will rely on hun­ters to col­lect sam­ples. “Now we really need the virus so we can iso­late it, grow it in eggs and then se­quence it so that we get the en­tire genome,” Prof Klaassen said. “To cap­ture the virus we need to do swabs and I can't pos­si­bly catch enough ducks to do that, so tap­ping into hun­ters is the way to go. This is really im­por­tant re­search, which will be fun­da­men­tal in our un­der­stand­ing.”

The re­search is funded by the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil and sup­ported in kind by the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Deakin Univer­sity and Syd­ney Univer­sity.

FGA mem­bers can ex­pect to hear more about get­ting in­volved ahead of the 2017 Duck Sea­son.

Gee­long FGA mem­bers Trent Leen and Ken Farmer learn­ing how to take swabs

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