Grave fears deadly bird flu to rip through millions of penguins after 'concerning' discovery

One of the scientists who first detected avian flu on mainland Antarctica has spoken with Yahoo News about the race to find birds infected with H5N1.

Two researchers have tested hundreds of samples from penguins and other birds, in an effort to track the spread of a highly virulent strain of avian flu H5N1.

Operating on a tiny bench in a 12 square metre room, on frigid Deception Island since January 6, the researchers were the first to detect the disease in migratory birds on mainland Antarctica last week. After its discovery on Sunday, researchers now fear the spread could be more devastating for penguins than climate change in the short term.

Speaking to Yahoo News on Thursday (local time), research leader Dr Antonio Alcamí said finding the virus was “a sad surprise”. Right now everything still “looks normal” around the region’s penguin colonies, but he’s concerned about how the disease could impact chicks born after the next breeding season in November and December, particularly because the colonies often huddle close together.

Left; Dozens of samples that have been tested. Right: Chinstrap penguins on Deception Island.
Two researchers on Deception Island have tested hundreds of samples as they try to slow the spread of H5N1. Source: Antonio Alcamí /Getty

“If you look at South America, the spread was really fast, and with some animals mortalities have been in the order of 30 per cent. It could make a really big impact on the population of penguins. That means it could take them years to recover if they are hit really hard,” Alcamí said.

How did avian flu reach Antarctica?

Flying to Antarctica is difficult for birds, particularly when sick, because extreme ocean winds help provide a barrier, and it had been hoped it could prevent H5N1 reaching the continent. Researchers believe there are three possibilities as to how the virus reached the mainland.

  1. Penguins carrying it from sub-Antarctic islands to the mainland.

  2. Skua seabirds migrating from South America.

  3. Migrating sea mammals being eaten by birds.

Two sites of concern on mainland Antarctica have been logged on a database operated by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Included are the confirmed cases in skuas at Primavera Station and suspected cases in skuas and gulls at Hope Bay. At nearby Heroina Island the “unusual mortality” of a brown skua was reported, but it tested negative to a PCR.

Dr Antonio Alcamí in his tiny Deception Island lab.
Dr Antonio Alcamí and his colleague have tested hundreds of samples in their tiny Deception Island lab. Source: Antonio Alcamí

Other strains of avian flu detected off Antarctica

Yahoo News can reveal a separate strain of avian flu has been detected in chinstrap penguins on Deception Island, but it was a low pathogenic strain. Alcamí and his senior post doctorate colleague Angela Vázquez plan to sequence the virus to determine what sort of subtype it is, and if it could help provide immunity to H5N1.

“There may be some immunity from that. But we know with flu by our own experience that they change every season – and vaccine is then changed according to the subtype. So if you were infected with a H1 virus and a H5 comes along, then you have some immunity, but not protective immunity,” Alcamí said.

A map showing sites in Antarctica where avian flu is suspected.
Two sites of concern on mainland Antarctica have been logged. Source: SCAR

Climate change has likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of penguin chicks which drowned after sea ice melted early. Alcamí fears the threat of avian flu could further compound problems for the birds.

"The impact could be more than the climate change impact, in the short term. There could be a really big affect in just one or two seasons, and it could add up, which is also a concern," he said.

Alcamí is a virologist working for the Spanish National Research Council, and he is the principal investigator with Immunity and Viromics. He and his colleague Vázquez are on Deception Island, testing samples for PERPANTAR whose two principal investigators are Virginia Morandini and Josabel Belliure.

The samples that tested positive for H5N1 were provided by Station Primavera which is part of an international collaboration between the Argentinian and Spanish Polar programs.

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