A Highly Lethal Avian Flu Strain Has Scientists Concerned

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It is killing thousands of seabirds—which isn’t normal—and mammals, too.

This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Bernie sniffs the disembodied wing, picks it up in his jaws, and runs away. Four years after we adopted him, our dog’s recall is generally a point of pride. A sharp blast on a pea whistle helps when his mind drifts. But even that will fail when he’s found something disgusting or rotten. A bloated seal carcass to rub himself on. A catshark washed up in the surf. The remains of a seabird.

After 20 seconds or so, I manage to tempt Bernie away from the wing, mostly sinew with a few cream-colored feathers, probably a gull of some kind. Kittiwakes, little gulls, herring gulls: they all frequent the shores of southwest England that my family and I call home. All told, Bernie is acting like a typical dog—an opportunistic scavenger. In my head, however, this banal scene flashes into a dire vision: another pandemic.

For months, I have been following the media coverage of the devastating outbreak of avian influenza as it’s killed thousands of seabirds in Scotland. In the summer of 2022, gannets and skuas on Scotland’s remote isles started behaving oddly. They walked in circles as if intoxicated. Their heads swelled. They dragged their limp wings at their sides, feathers grazing the ground. At a time when they should have been breeding and raising new life, they were dying. Scientists and birdwatchers had a front-row seat to an ecological disaster. More than two-thirds of the world’s gannets and great skuas—birds that migrate across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern North America to western Europe—are feared to have been lost.

As the influenza tore through seabird colonies near my home, it also spread over the Atlantic into eastern Canada, through the United States, and, most recently, into South America, jumping into new hosts as it went. Eagles, pelicans, and even mammals such as red foxes, seals, and bears have died after coming into contact with infected birds.

All of this is incredibly unusual. Seabirds shouldn’t die from the flu. The type of influenza virus that infects birds—known as influenza A, or bird flu—is traditionally mild; most birds don’t show any sign of sickness. Its natural habitat is within the digestive systems of seabirds and waterfowl, such as ducks and geese. It spreads through bodily fluids and fecal matter in the water. It’s a natural part of wetland and coastal ecosystems.

But this outbreak has killed thousands of seabirds. It has also survived through the summer, a season usually free from influenza in the northern hemisphere. And it jumps into mammals, an entirely new host, with aplomb. The situation has scientists wondering: Is this the new norm? And if so, should we be concerned that it will adapt to, and spread through, humans next?

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