The virus is unlike any other circulating avian flu viruses.
While other research groups have taken blood samples from penguins before and detected influenza antibodies, no one had detected actual live influenza virus in penguins or other birds in Antarctica previously, said senior research scientist Aeron Hurt at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza in Melbourne, Australia.
The virus did not cause illness in the penguins but the study shows that avian influenza viruses can get down to Antarctica and be maintained in penguin populations, he said. “It raises a lot of unanswered questions,” Hurt added. They include how often Avian Influenza Virus (AIVs) are being introduced into Antarctica, whether it is possible for highly pathogenic AIVs to be transferred there, what animals or ecosystems are maintaining the virus and whether the viruses are being cryo-preserved during the winters.
For the study, Hurt collected swabs from the windpipes and posterior openings of 301 Adelie penguins and blood from 270 penguins from two locations on the Antarctic Peninsula: Admiralty Bay and Rada Covadonga. The samples were collected during January and February 2013.
Using a laboratory technique called real-time reverse transcription-PCR, the researchers found AIV genetic material in eight (2.7%) samples, six from adult penguins and two from chicks. Seven of the samples were from Rada Covadonga. The researchers were able to culture four of these viruses demonstrating that live infectious virus was present.