Avian influenza virus samples collected from wild birds in Mongolia by field veterinarians from the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been selected by the World Health Organization to be part of a new human pandemic influenza vaccine currently in development.
The samples, collected in the midst of an outbreak in August killing wild ducks, geese and swans in northern Mongolia have unique genetic characteristics which make them a valuable addition to a human vaccine based on a variety of strains of influenza.
Working in Mongolia for a health survey of wild bird populations in Mongolia, WCS field vets Drs. William Karesh and Martin Gilbert responded to reports of the avian influenza outbreak in Kovsgol Province near the Russian border from the Mongolian Ministry of Food and Agriculture, which conducted preliminary testing from the wild birds. The highly pathogenic avian flu-H5N1 finding was confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory.
"This is good for humankind," said Dr. David Swayne, director of the USDA Southeast Poultry Laboratory, which was able to grow the virus from the Mongolian samples.
"Nature is the largest, incompletely catalogued library on earth," said Dr. Karesh, director of WCS's Field Veterinary Program. "This is just one more example of the value of protecting the diversity of life on our planet, and how monitoring the health of wild species serves not only to protect them, but also can have huge payoffs for humankind."
The field team, supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.) of the U.N., included personnel from WCS, the Mongolian National Academy of Sciences, the Mongolian Institute of Veterinary Medicine, the State Central Veterinary Laboratory, Ministry of Food and Agriculture Veterinary Department, and the Mongolian Ministry of Health Center for Communicable Diseases with Natural Foci – searched for birds from the Gobi Desert to the northern mountain lakes of the country and collected samples from hundreds of wild birds, both live and dead including, ruddy shelduck, herring gull, black-headed gull, bar-headed goose, and whooper swans, all species that have been affected by the disease.
"The collaboration of national and international agencies and groups in Mongolia provides a solid example of how the threat of avian influenza can be monitored and countered ," said Joseph Domenech, F.A.O.'s Chief Veterinary Officer. "Effective teamwork on all levels is our best defense against this potential pandemic."
The multidisciplinary, collaborative response to this latest outbreak reflects the WCS 'One World-One Health' approach to making informed, multidisciplinary decisions on global health crises that intersect human, wildlife, and livestock health. Wildlife and health experts, including F.A.O. and the World Organization for Animal Health, maintain that indiscriminate culling of wild migratory bird populations would be ineffective in preventing the spread of avian flu. Wild birds, some of which are critically threatened or endangered are also being impacted directly by the H5N1 strain of influenza virus. Focusing resources on the hubs and activities where humans, livestock, and wildlife come into close contact is the best hope for successfully preventing the spread of avian flu and protecting both people and animals. To contain this potential epidemic, prevention activities must include better management practices in farms, especially those that are small and open-air where domestic poultry and waterfowl are allowed to intermingle with wild birds, and the use of effective vaccines as required, as expounded by the U.N.'s F.A.O. Officials would also need to monitor wildlife markets where wild and domesticated species are kept in close proximity, and risk exposure to a wide range of pathogens.
The White House's recently released "National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza" acknowledges the need to "expand and enhance mechanisms for screening and monitoring animals that may harbor viruses with pandemic potential." Working in tandem with national and international health agencies, congressional leaders have introduced legislation aimed at filling existing gaps in US pandemic preparedness by establishing a global network to monitor wild bird diseases and distributing real-time surveillance results to combat the spread of avian influenza. "Just as we track hurricanes when they begin as a tropical storm, we must track wild migratory birds and the viral storms they carry over oceans and continents and share that data with the world," said Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), who recently introduced the Global Network for Avian Influenza Surveillance Act and has been working with congressional leaders to address this gap in US surveillance efforts.
"WCS has been at the forefront of research into the avian flu pandemic, and this development underscores the importance of their work," said Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY 18), author of the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act to create an international plan to address avian flu. "This development will help ensure that we have a more accurate vaccine to target a possible avian flu pandemic. As we work in Congress to bolster preparedness for an avian flu pandemic, contributions like this from the scientific community will be critical to ensure that the steps we take will protect the public as best as possible."