A highly lethal strain of avian influenza that has devastated populations of wild birds and domestic poultry around the world continues to be unpredictable, says a University of Guelph avian immunologist concerned that the virus could spread to humans.
Dr. Shayan Sharif is an immunologist in the Department of Pathobiology in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) who specializes in the immune systems of chickens, including their responses to avian influenza. He is the associate dean of research and graduate studies at OVC.
Sharif says while the H5N1 family of avian influenza is not new, the highly pathogenic strain spreading around the globe is unique in its ability to kill multiple bird species that were once thought resistant.
Seabirds, for example, are dying by the thousands from the virus, even while previous strains caused them few problems. Even within bird families such as ducks, some species are succumbing to the virus, while others can carry the virus without showing clinical signs or mortality, and the reasons for that are still not clear, says Sharif.
“We have very little capacity to predict virulence of this virus or the ability of this virus to cause disease in different bird species,” he told CBC’s The Current on Monday.
With the virus spreading rapidly on poultry farms in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, the BC Centre for Disease Control is asking doctors to be on the lookout for the possibility of infection in humans.
Sharif says that possibility has him concerned, too.
“While this virus has not had much opportunity to jump to humans, there is always the possibility it could gain that capacity and we could potentially encounter a pandemic,” he said.
Sharif is particularly concerned about the recent discovery of avian influenza virus in mammals such as bears and foxes.
“As someone with expertise in this area, I would say this is the last thing that I would like to see, that all of a sudden a virus that was mostly impacting birds is now jumping to other species,” he said. “Even though it’s been rare to see it in foxes, bears and skunks, that is not setting a very good precedent.”
Sharif is available for interviews early this week.
Dr. Shayan Sharif