U.K. Detects 1st Bird Flu Case in Mammals in Sub-Antarctic

LONDON (Reuters) — Bird flu has been detected for the first time in mammals in sub-Antarctic, Britain’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) said on Jan. 11, raising concerns the virus could spread and threaten large populations of wildlife in the region.

The APHA said highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was found in elephant and fur seals on the island of South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory situated in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It had been testing for bird flu in mammals in the region since it was first suspected last year.

“Given Antarctica is such a unique and special biodiversity hotspot it is sad and concerning to see the disease spread to mammals in the region,” the APHA’s Director of Scientific Services Prof. Ian Brown said, adding very large populations of seabirds and sea mammals could be put at risk.

The sub-Antarctic refers to a region immediately north of the Antarctic, containing multiple islands.

APHA said the data suggested there had not been a widespread adaptation of the virus and there was no increased risk to humans, with the risk of human infection remaining very low.

South Georgia, around 1,000 kilometers southeast of the Falkland Islands and only accessible by ship, has some of the most closely monitored seabird colonies in the world.

Cases of H5N1 were first suspected on an island off the northwest coast of South Georgia in October after several brown skua died. The agency said data from the infected birds indicated the virus had likely been introduced by migratory bird movement from South America.

Brown said samples would be shared with the agency’s international partners to assist efforts to tackle the virus, but warned that uncertainties remain as to how it was infecting and spreading.