Avian flu detected in 6 wild birds across New York City

NEW YORK — Highly pathogenic avian influenza, more commonly known as bird flu, has been making headlines across the globe as it spreads through wild bird populations and poultry farms alike. Most recently, a Texas dairy farm worker became the first human to contract the disease from an infected cow. Now the deadly virus is appearing in some wild New York City birds, where several species have tested positive.

Armed with swabs and a passion for pandemic preparedness, a team of dedicated researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the New York City Virus Hunters Program (NYCVH) embarked on a mission to track down the elusive H5N1 strain of bird flu in New York City’s parks, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and even the occasional rescued chicken. Their findings, published in the Journal of Virology, are both fascinating and alarming. Out of nearly 2,000 samples collected from over 895 birds, six tested positive for the deadly virus. Among the infected were two Canada geese, a red-tailed hawk, a peregrine falcon, and perhaps most surprisingly, a chicken found in upper Manhattan.

The discovery of H5N1 in these diverse bird species, from majestic birds of prey to humble poultry, underscores the virus’s ability to infect a wide range of hosts and adapt to new environments. It also raises pressing questions about the potential for this deadly pathogen to spread undetected in the very heart of our urban communities.

“To my knowledge, this is the first large-scale U.S. study of avian influenza in an urban area, and the first with active community involvement,” says study co-author Christine Marizzi, PhD, principal investigator of the NYCVH, in a statement. “Birds are key to finding out which influenza and other avian viruses are circulating in the New York City area, as well as important for understanding which ones can be dangerous to both other birds and humans. And we need more eyes on the ground—that’s why community involvement is really critical.”

So, what exactly is this H5N1 virus that’s got scientists so concerned? Put simply, it’s a type of influenza virus that primarily affects birds, but has the potential to jump to humans and cause severe illness. In birds, the virus can spread like wildfire, causing high mortality rates and devastating poultry industries. And while human infections have been rare so far, experts worry that the virus could mutate into a form that spreads more easily between people, potentially sparking a global pandemic.

That’s where the NYCVH come in. This collaborative effort brings together researchers, wildlife veterinarians, and a secret weapon: the city’s youth. High school students from diverse backgrounds work alongside expert mentors, getting hands-on experience in every step of the scientific process. From designing the study to safely collecting samples and analyzing data, these budding scientists are not just learning, but actively contributing to the frontlines of pandemic preparedness.

Over the course of nearly two years, the team collected a staggering 1,927 samples from over 895 birds across the city. They focused their efforts on aquatic birds like ducks and geese, as well as birds of prey, which are known to be particularly susceptible to H5N1. The samples came from two main sources – the Wild Bird Fund and Animal Care Centers of New York City, which care for the city’s sick and injured wildlife, and fresh fecal samples collected by the student researchers in parks and green spaces.

Back in the lab, the real detective work began. Using state-of-the-art molecular techniques, the team screened the samples for the presence of influenza viruses. The results were both fascinating and sobering – out of all those samples, six birds tested positive for the dreaded H5N1 strain. While the number may seem small, it’s a potent reminder that avian influenza isn’t just a concern for rural poultry farms – it can strike in the very heart of our cities.

The researchers didn’t stop at just detecting the virus – they wanted to understand it on a deeper level. By sequencing the genomes of the viruses they found, they discovered that the H5N1 strains circulating in New York City’s birds aren’t just carbon copies of each other. Instead, they represent multiple different genotypes, each with its own unique combination of genes from both Eurasian and North American lineages of the virus.

This finding underscores the incredible adaptability and evolutionary potential of influenza viruses. As they spread across continents, mixing and mingling with local strains, they can swap genes like trading cards, creating novel combinations that may have altered abilities to infect hosts or evade immune responses. It’s this constant reshuffling that keeps virologists on their toes, always watching for the next pandemic threat.

So what does the presence of H5N1 in New York City’s birds mean for the average New Yorker? The risk to human health remains low at this point, but experts caution against complacency. While the virus may not be an immediate threat, its presence in our urban environment provides a potential interface for the virus to evolve and adapt. Close contact between infected birds, humans, and even our beloved household pets could provide opportunities for the virus to make the jump to new hosts.

“It is important to mention that, because we found H5N1 in city birds, this does not signal the start of a human influenza pandemic. We know that H5N1 has been around in New York City for about 2 years and there have been no human cases reported,” says Marizzi. “It’s smart to stay alert and stay away from wildlife. This also includes preventing your pets from getting in close contact with wildlife.”

The researchers stress that awareness and education are key. By understanding the risks and knowing how to safely interact with urban wildlife, we can all play a part in preventing the next pandemic. Simple steps like keeping a safe distance from wild birds, reporting sick or dead birds to authorities, and keeping our pet cats and dogs away from potential feathered virus carriers can go a long way. By keeping a watchful eye on the viruses circulating in our animal neighbors, we can detect potential threats early and develop strategies to mitigate their impact.