Wildlife under threat as avian influenza reaches Antarctica

Avian Influenza Antartica_Flock of birds close to the seaside

The ongoing spread of high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) has now reached an unprecedented milestone with reports of its recent detection on Antarctica’s mainland. Originally surfacing in Europe in 2021, the virus has traversed continents, reaching North America in the same year and South America by 2022. Most recently, it has extended its reach to Antarctic islands in 2023. However, the gravity of the situation intensifies as it infiltrates the northern tip of Antarctica’s mainland, as reported through the World Animal Health Information System (WAHIS).

The discovery came through the identification of the virus in a South Polar skua collected by Argentinian scientists near Argentina’s Antarctic research base, Primavera. Skuas, large seabirds breeding in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic zones, pose a concerning vector as they migrate farther north when not breeding.  

Once considered primarily a threat to poultry, HPAI has ushered in a “new normal” whereby HPAI is moving from wild birds to wild mammals with impacts beyond anything previously seen. Estimates vary, but at the latest count, there have been 485 species from over 25 avian orders affected and 37 new mammal species infected since 2021. Only Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand remain free of the disease, but the situation is changing rapidly.

HPAI outbreaks have resulted in marked declines in wildlife populations, including marine mammals in South America. Despite the challenges, there are strategies to better protect wildlife in the short and long term. These include  preventing further spillover events to and from poultry through improved biosecurity, implementing improved surveillance systems to both inform virus epidemiology and benefit wildlife, and responding to outbreaks in wildlife using a coordinated, interagency-multisectoral approach. For example, WOAH’s Working Group on Wildlife has produced new guidelines on the emergency vaccination of wild birds of high conservation importance against HPAI and the management of HPAI in marine mammals. 

The loss of wildlife at the current scale presents an unprecedented risk of wildlife population collapse, creating an ecological crisis. WOAH encourages Members to quickly and thoroughly respond to outbreaks of HPAI in wildlife, emphasising the incorporation of wildlife health into animal health surveillance, reporting, preparedness, and response systems. These efforts require not merely viewing wildlife as a potential risk to production animal and human health, but as beings warranting protection in their own right. WOAH underscores the importance of robust interagency coordination and inclusion of diverse expertise to ensure transparency, equity and mutual benefit of decisions.