Even seals are at risk of nasty flu virus
Look at that cute seal: that spray of whiskers, the shimmery coat of gray, those eyes like dark pools that seem to look back at you as though looking for a friend.
But beneath that sympathetic surface, could the common harbor seal actually serve as a laboratory-in-the-wild for the next generation of lethal pandemic flu virus? Sadly, a study says the possibility may exist.
The news stems from an investigation into the deaths of 162 New England harbor seals between September and December 2011. A report in the July 31 issue of microbiology journal mBio found that the seals died from a variant of avian H3N8 flu that has been known to thrive in North American birds since 2002.
The H3N8 virus found in the seals had adapted to spread to its cute hosts through a type of protein mutation seen previously in the “highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus infecting people,” the journal article says.
A report in WedMD the same day noted that the H3N8 virus has long been known to infect horses and dogs without spreading to humans, and it appeared that the recent seal variation would similarly be unable to make the jump to the human population.
However, seals may be able to harbor multiple flu viruses at the same time. So could the mammal-adapted H3N8 virus combine with an H5N1 bird flu inside of a seal and create a deadly new bug that could infect humans?
“Further studies will be required,” the mBio study says. Yikes.
Could this little guy be harboring the next pandemic flu virus? Only time will tell.