Even seals are at risk of nasty flu virus

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

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.

GETTY IM­AGES

Could this lit­tle guy be har­bor­ing the next pan­demic flu virus? Only time will tell.

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