Australia at risk of viral outbreak spread by birds

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Australian scientists have found a family of virus called coronavirus in the country’s wild birds, that has the potential to infect human hosts. Many of the birds that carry the viruses fly between Asia and Australia, demonstrating that viral infections can spread globally through birds.

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

A team led by director of the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, Professor Soren Alexandersen, discovered that the same family of virus that caused the SARS and MERS respiratory diseases can be found in birds that migrate between Australia and Asia.

“We’re not isolated from the world with these types of viruses,” Prof Alexandersen said.

The viruses, called coronaviruses, do not necessarily cause illness in people, but some have already been found to infect pigs, which is an indication they may be able to enter human hosts as well. Prof Alexandersen says this means there is a risk of an outbreak started by a virus moving from a bird to a human host.

“We are part of the big global interchange of viruses,” Prof Alexandersen said.

“From time to time they jump species and sometimes get into people and cause disease.”

In 2002 the SARS virus spread to humans from bats in China, leading to more than 8000 cases and more than 700 deaths in 37 countries. Most deaths occurred in China where the virus was first spread to humans. The more recent MERS virus first infected humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012. More than 1800 cases have been reported since then.

Prof Alexandersen says even if the bird viruses don’t spread to humans, this kind of research is still important.

“It can basically happen anywhere. And we need to know the situation in different countries so if it starts there and starts spreading worldwide, we are prepared,” Prof Alexanderson said.

The Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases is a collaboration between Deakin University, Barwon Health and the Australian Animal Health laboratory.