Reports of deadly virus suddenly stop as Antarctica goes dark

We asked the world's leading experts about the threat of the highly pathogenic HPAI strain over the winter months.

Tents lit up on Antarctica at night.
During winter there are few Antarctic expeditions and most scientists return home. Source: Getty

Highly pathogenic bird flu was detected for the first time in Antarctica in February, sparking international concern the HPAI virus would decimate penguin colonies. Then reports of new cases suddenly stopped.

Infections were initially detected by two Spanish virologists who were crammed inside a tiny makeshift lab, testing hundreds of samples. One of whom, Dr Antonio Alcamí, told Yahoo News at the time that finding the virus had infected migratory skuas was “a sad surprise”.

Not long after he made the discovery on Hope Bay, Alcamí left the island, telling Yahoo on April 22, “The Spanish Stations are closed for the winter”.

Because of its position on the Earth’s axis, during the winter Antarctica experiences six months of darkness making it an inhospitable place to live. During this time the temperature can drop as low as -90 degrees and blizzards can last for days. While some research stations operated by Australia, Argentina and Chile stay open with a skeleton staff, the majority of scientists head home.

Related: Are KFC, eggs and dairy safe from the spread of bird flu in Australia?

Dr Antonio Alcamí inside his lab carrying out testing for HPAI
Dr Antonio Alcamí carried out testing for HPAI in a tiny lab. Source: Supplied

Although the scaling down of disease monitoring might sound alarming, Australia’s Dr Meagan Dewar told Yahoo the virus is unlikely to spread very far over the winter. Dewar chairs the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research's (SCAR) Antarctic Wildlife Health Network.

“At this stage, as most animal species have left the region and will be at sea or have migrated back to higher latitudes [like South America] it is likely that the spread of the virus will be minimal over winter in the region,” she said via email.

“However, once animals, especially species like skuas [a type of seabird] return at the start of the season it is likely the virus will return. Logistics are very difficult during the winter months especially with sea ice, so movement in the region is quite restricted.”

Australia’s Department of the Environment confirmed it is continuing to monitor for the presence of HPAI during the winter months. “This will be done through regular observations and video footage from station expeditioners and station leaders,” it said.

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