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 & 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.”
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