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Chile detects positive cases of avian flu in penguins, shags and skuas in Antarctica

Punta Arenas, March 2024.- Earlier this week, Chile announced the detection of positive cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N1) in Antarctica, during the LX Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ECA 60) organized by the Institute Chilean Antarctic (INACH).

BASE Millennium Institute team in Antarctica, monitoring penguin colony. Photo: StudioPONANT / Morgane Monneret

For the first time, positive cases of avian flu have been detected in Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) and Antarctic shags (Leucocarbo bransfieldensis), marking a milestone in research into the health of wildlife in this territory. This discovery was made by the Millennium Biodiversity Institute of Antarctic and Subantarctic Ecosystems (BASE Millennium Institute) in collaboration with the french company PONANT, with the participation of an international research team led by PhD. Elie Poulin (Universidad de Chile, BASE Millennium Institute) and PhD. Juliana Vianna (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, BASE Millennium Institute and CGR, Lili, Institute for Sustainable Development UC), in collaboration with PhD. Céline LeBohec, from CNRS, France, and CSM, Monaco, and the Oceanographic Institute of the Albert I Prince of Monaco Foundation (IOM).

The samples were obtained at thirteen breeding sites along the Antarctic Peninsula and the western coast of the White Continent, with international support from the ship Le Commandant Charcot. Following a highly sensitive PCR analysis carried out by PhD. Fabiola León (BASE Millennium Institute, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, CRG, Lili), nine cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) were detected in penguins and shags, being the first records of these two species in Antarctica.

Adding to this epidemiological surveillance effort is what was carried out near the Czech Johann Gregor Mendel base on James Ross Island by national researchers. An unusual mortality of skuas was reported here in early March, which alerted the team of virologists from the National Antarctic Science Program (Procien) at the Professor Julio Escudero base at INACH. This equipment was transferred aboard the Chilean Navy ship Janequeo to carry out the corresponding sampling. This tuesday, it was finally confirmed that the samples collected returned a positive result for the avian flu virus.

Aerial view of the ship Le Commandant Charcot of the Ponant company. Photo: Ponant

These analyzes are part of the INACH collaborative project “Identification and Characterization of HPAIV H5N1 in Antarctica”, led by PhD. Marcelo González, head of the INACH Scientific Department. The tests were processed at the Escudero base by veterinary doctors specialized in molecular diagnosis, headed by PhD. Víctor Neira, from the Animal Virology Laboratory (FAVET) of the Universidad de Chile.

Since the beginning of monitoring the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in birds in Antarctica, the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) has developed a project to monitor the virus in the antarctic and subantarctic territories, a work that is being carried out continuously and systematically from Chile. These findings highlight the importance of collaborative work and scientific research in Antarctica to understand and mitigate the risks associated with avian diseases in the region.


By: INACH and BASE Millennium Institute

Main image: Ponant

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