Lifestyle & Belief

New flu strain in seals could be hazardous to humans


Rescued seals rest in a basin at the Pieterburen Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre in Groningen, on January 16, 2012. More than 350 seals were stranded in de Waddenzee after a heavy storm in January.



A new strain of influenza has been found in harbor seals that could potentially impact human and animal health, BBC News reported. 

The virus, known as the H3N8 flu, was previously associated with the deaths of harbor seals in New England last year. Researchers theorized the virus may have evolved from a type that had been circulating in birds. A group of researchers performed autopsies on five of the 162 marine mammals that died from the flu. The group found that they in fact died from a type of H3N8 influenza, the Press Association reported. 

Eddie Holmes, an expert on flu evolution at Penn State who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times that “The question mark is what it means for seals, and what it means for us." He added that the researchers did an excellent job of identifying the strain of flu so quickly, calling the study "beautiful."

The New York Times reported that hospitals worldwide have recorded only 607 cases of H5N1 infection, the most dangerous type of birdflu, in humans.

Simon Anthony, a postdoctoral researcher who led a search for viral genes in the tissue of the seals, told The New York Times that a new strain that can spread among seals should be considered a serious concern. “What we fear is that it would allow the virus to persist within the seal population, and if it persists, who knows what other changes may accumulate over time?”

W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity and an author of the study, added, “If it adapts better to mammal hosts, it may well start to move into humans. This is clearly a virus for which we need some surveillance.”

This isn't the first time the bird flu has been a major cause for concern. In June GlobalPost reported on previously censored research that was released and shows how the H5N1 bird flu virus can be genetically altered in just five steps and transmitted in mammals, resulting in a massive pandemic.