‘Nightmare’: Grim sign of next pandemic

Macquarie Island Resupply
A discovery in Antarctica could be a grim sign of the next pandemic. Picture: Ryan Osland/The Australian

Bird flu has been detected for the first time on mainland Antarctica, raising concerns it could be the cause of the next pandemic.

Spanish scientists from the Higher Council for Scientific Research confirmed the highly pathogenic virus was present on the icy continent as recently as this week.

Two dead seabirds were found to be infected with the virus during sampling by scientists on the Spanish Antarctic Base on Deception Island.

The group used the highest-grade protective measures to avoid transmitting the virus to people, a leap that University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science professor Michael Ward said would have the potential to cause the next pandemic.

“There’s a big public health concern because before Covid everyone was saying bird influenza is going to be the next pandemic,” he said.

Seabirds flying over dramatic ocean island cliffs St Kilda Scotland
Scientists have detected bird flu in Antarctica for the first time. Picture: UK Nature Photo – iStock

“Covid came in and sort of leapfrogged it, but it’s still very high up on the agenda as one of the viruses that has the potential to cause a pandemic.

“So every time it spills over into humans, we’re concerned.”

The virus samples taken by the Spanish scientists were immediately inactivated to allow the virus to be studied safely and prevent transmission to humans. However, the virus’s detection in such a remote location is concerning to Professor Ward.

“It was one of the last areas that we weren’t aware the influenza was – it was one of the last frontiers,” he said.

“Australia gets very little bird influenza, but it’s been really raging in North America and especially Europe the last two years – a bit out of control.”

Macquarie Island Resupply
Professor Michael Ward said this causes a big concern due to the remote nature of the continent. Picture: Ryan Osland/The Australian

Professor Ward said the behaviour of the flu’s spread had been “unusual”.

“It may not be surprising it’s ended up in Antarctica, but it’s surprising because it’s so remote. And if it’s got there, there’s nowhere it can’t get,” he said.

If bird flu was to make its way onto Australian shores, it could also have far-reaching impact on the nations poultry and egg markets.

“What’s happened in Australia before has mostly involved people working with chickens and poultry, either farmers, sorters or slaughterers, that have close contact with the animals,” Professor Ward said.

Macquarie Island Skua Pictures
Once the virus leaps from birds to humans, it could cause another pandemic. Picture: Park and Wildlife Marcus Salton

“But the concern is, once it’s getting into people and it does that regularly, it gets to the point where it doesn’t need the chicken anymore, and it can just go from person to person, and that’s when you’ve got the pandemic.”

“That’s the real sort of nightmare.”

As to why the flu is suddenly able to pop up in such a remote location, Professor Ward said there wasn’t any strong evidence as yet, but it could be a result of changing wild bird habitats, changing migration patterns or even climate change.

Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, is a type A influenza virus. It is lethal to poultry and is potentially fatal in humans.