Preparing for avian flu’s NZ arrival

University of Otago School of Biomedical Sciences Professor Jemma Geoghegan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
University of Otago School of Biomedical Sciences Professor Jemma Geoghegan. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Aotearoa New Zealand is preparing to tackle the evolving threat of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly known as avian flu.

Te Niwha, the national infectious diseases research platform, recently hosted a webinar to discuss surveillance and preparedness measures against the virus.

A study funded by Te Niwha is looking at how to develop new tools to prepare New Zealand for the likely arrival of HPAI.

The study is co-led by University of Otago Webster family chair in viral pathogenesis Professor Jemma Geoghehan and Institute of Environmental Science and Research science leader, genomics and bioinformatics Dr David Winter.

Prof Geoghegan said HPAI has been known for over 30 years but has recently evolved, acquiring genetic mutations that broaden its host and geographical range.

The virus has ‘spilled over' to over 50 mammalian species and spread to more than 50 farms in the United States.

While the virus showed signs of mammal-to-mammal transmission, it continued to look very much like an avian virus rather than a human influenza virus.

The virus has been detected across the world, and New Zealand was one of the last remaining places where it was yet to be detected.

HPAI was likely to enter New Zealand through migratory wild birds, but not much was known about how wild birds transmit viruses and how they interact between migratory birds and the ones that don't migrate.

The most likely sign of the virus arriving in New Zealand would be ‘‘lots of dead birds,’’ Prof Geoghegan said .

‘‘It is very hard to stop it arriving because we can’t shut our borders to migratory birds.

‘‘What we can do is adapt our surveillance systems to better detect the virus when it arrives.’’

Dr David Winter said research was being used to strengthen the country’s surveillance toolkit.

‘‘We want a surveillance toolkit, a set of tools basically for detection which are fit for purpose for being able to take those different approaches to be able to detect this virus in the community, in wildlife, and in human cases eventually.’’

Typical avian flu surveillance used ducks because they were a great ‘‘sentinel’’.

‘‘If there are birds in the community with avian influenza, ducks are likely to end up getting it.’’

But it was hard to scale up testing of ducks because it required finding and swabbing ducks and sending samples to diagnostic labs.

Instead it was researching emerging technologies that can detect viruses directly from the environment, such as taking a sample of water from an estuary or duck pond which contains DNA or RNA information about creatures and microbes in the area.

Using an eDNA (environmental DNA), small traces of genetic material tested by using ‘‘ molecular biology tricks’’ to target a particular organism or variant right down to the level of an individual mutation.

‘‘There's this emerging set of tools basically for relatively low overhead, low requirement to be able to generate this sort of data in the field so that you could get to the point where instead of sending samples away to diagnostic labs and performing these tests, you can do the test just by the colour that  a particular tube is changing.’’

These types of tests could potentially be used by people in the community, providing a wider opportunity to conduct surveillance over larger areas.

‘‘This is very much at the start of the project.’’