University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers use open-access data to track Bird Flu

Published: Oct. 23, 2020 at 4:56 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -This month the journal Scientific Reports published findings from an extensive research project conducted in part by University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) researchers, tracking the spread of avian influenza carried by many species of birds. According to Falk Huettmann, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at UAF and co-author of the paper, birds carrying these viruses have the potential to cause the next pandemic.

This international research team has mapped the sources of 15 different avian influenza strains throughout regions of Asia and Alaska.

“We have assembled data from Alaska, but also from Russia, from Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, and we compile them in a database where the reservoir of so-called low pathogenic avian influenza come from. The low reservoir consists of approximately 110 viruses that are perceived as the flu, but which can mutate into a highly pathogenic pandemic event -- and that’s what we look at,” said Huettmann.

Sampled birds included internationally migrating ducks, swans, songbirds, and geese, as well chickens contained at industrial farms within the poultry industry. The project also collected bird data from hunters and airport confiscations.

“So instead of using individual viruses, we took all the viruses together, and then data mined and predicted them to see where they’re distributed. In this case we used a very powerful data mining tool called machine learning and AI to get at the patterns, because the human brain is usually not so able to capture all these complexities that are in the data," said Huettmann.

Both migratory birds, and birds shipped internationally for consumption have the potential to transmit these viruses. Huettmann continued, “Migratory birds play a role in this, to connect the continents from Asia to North America and vice versa -- and so we find some birds who are consistently showing up as a host, and as a reservoir for these viruses. Mostly it relates to human activities, including poultry, but also animals who are moving between areas where there is urbanized poultry, and other farming activities."

Huettmann went on to say “Alaska is part of what’s referred to as the Pacific Rim. There are many effects and diseases coming upon us from outside, but we also create some as well -- so there’s an exchange of these viruses. In this case in Asia there are some hotspots we identified. We think urbanized zones in Asia, and specifically with a lot of farming, [are] some of those hotspots.”

The transmission of avian influenza viruses to humans most often occurs as a byproduct of the meat production industry.

“It has to do a lot with poultry management and how you produce food -- in this case chicken, and related species. In Asia it’s the Muscovy duck," said Huettman.

Improving the quality of health safety measures in meat production can help mitigate the danger of humans contracting and spreading these viruses.

“Setting standards of cleanliness for management of poultry, for food security, [which] might affect even the pricing of chicken. At the moment chicken is very cheap, and that has to do with the way we produce our food. Perhaps we should think about how we live and how we consume food,” said Huettman.

According to the professor, the results of this research were strengthened by having openly shared data sources, providing an argument that there are public health benefits to making such information more widely available.

“I would like to emphasize this analysis was only possible because people share the data. It’s an open access data sharing effort, and once agencies and countries do that then everybody can look at the data and draw their own conclusions," said Huettman.

For those interested in learning more, the full Scientific Reports paper is available here.

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