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Researchers Found Flu Virus in Elephant Seals

Update Date: May 16, 2013 02:09 PM EDT

Researchers from the University of California, Davis announced that they discovered the H1N1 flu virus that was prominent in 2009 in elephant seals that live off of the coast of California. Although it is quite common for animals to have flu viruses, especially in birds and pigs, where the virus tends to originate from, the researchers of this study were surprised to find this particular strain in marine animals. Since the H1N1 flu virus caused a pandemic, the fact that it could be spread between animals to animals is somewhat alarming.

"We thought we might find influence viruses, which have been found before in marine mammals, but we did not expect to find pandemic H1N1. This shows influenza viruses can move among species," Tracey Goldstein, the lead author, said. Goldstein is an associate professor with the UC Davis One Health Institute and Wildlife Center.

The discovery of the H1N1 flu virus was the result of a study that started in 2007, when the researchers first began studying the prevalence of flu viruses in birds and mammals. This study is a part of the Centers of Excellence in Influenza Research and Surveillance program with the goal of understanding how viruses spread between animals and humans. The National Institutes of Health funded the program. From 2009 to 2011, the research team was able to test over 900 nasal swabs from marine animals of 10 different species that originated from the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California. The researchers found two infected elephant seals and antibodies that developed to fight the virus in 28 elephant seals. These animals did not appear to sick.

"H1N1 was circulating in humans in 2009. The seals on land in early 2010 tested negative before they went to sea, but when they returned from sea in spring 2010, they tested positive," Goldstein said. "So the question is where did it come from?"

Since these seals were tracked, the researchers ruled out human contact as the cause of the infection. All the researchers could conclude was that the exposure most likely occurred in the sea environment or in one of the shores that they landed on. Regardless, the researchers hope that studying the effects of the virus in these marine mammals could help them understand how viruses manage to spread from animals to humans, humans to humans, and between animals.

The study was published in PLoS ONE

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