Target: Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Goal: Investigate the H3N8 virus now present in harbor seals to gain better insight of the virus and ways to protect against it.
From September to December of 2011, 162 harbor seals were found either dead or dying on the New England coastline. While it isn’t unusual for the occasional unlucky sea animal to beach itself on these shores, the vast number in which the seals collected (4 times the amount expected) was enough to leave residents wondering just what was going on.
Five of these seal specimens were tested, and each was found to have had pneumonia and ulcers on their skin. Further genetic testing revealed that all five also had suffered from influenza A. Now, after an in-depth investigation, researchers from Columbia University believe they have an answer to the mystery surrounding the mass deaths: a mutant variant of the flu virus brought to the seals by birds infected with the avian flu.
We’ve seen it before in dogs, horses, pigs and birds. Now, this seal flu may be a result of the well-known avian flu virus (H1N1) mutating and adapting to life inside a mammal, much in the same way it has with pigs. Once the virus was isolated from the seals, scientists were able to conclude that this mammalian variant (H3N8) was able to able to spread from seal to seal. This flu dramatically affected the animal’s airways, damaging lung tissue and allowing greater access for ancillary fatal infections to take hold.
“Our findings reinforce the importance of wildlife surveillance in predicting and preventing pandemics,” explained W. Ian Lipkin, MD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who headed the study—pointing out that past viruses originating in animals have had a devastating impact on human populations. HIV, West Nile, and influenza “are all examples of emerging infectious diseases that originated in animals.”
Because the H3N8 bug has already been seen in horses and dogs and does not infect humans, it is unlikely that the virus found in seals will have any affect either. The worry, however, is that the mammal-adapted H3N8 strain will combine with the avian H5N1 (both capable of existing simultaneously in seals) and create an unrelenting deadly virus. To keep this threat low, U.S. institutions of health need to continue their work researching and inhibiting the seal flu.
Dear Dr. Frieden,
Researchers as part of Columbia University, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have found that seals dying off the coast of New England had fallen ill due to a specific strain of the flu virus—particularly, one that resides in seals (H3N8). In the past, viruses originating in animals have proven to be devastating to human population. HIV, West Nile virus, and the flu virus have all taken a toll on humans after each virus mutated to be able to inhabit humans.
Viruses like these have the potential to cause tremendous harm to populations around the world, and to better understand the risks that may be inherent in viruses like the seal flu, research must be continued. The threat that this seal flu could merge with the avian flu to form an even more powerful virus is real and altogether dangerous. I urge you, as the head of the CDC to continue looking at the seal flu. By understanding the bug, we can better formulate ways to eliminate it or protect ourselves from its harm.
[Your Name Here]