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2014 seal flu outbreak illustrates threat of avian flus to mammals

Oct. 7 (UPI) — Scientists have identified the genetic mutations that allowed an avian flu strain to adapt to mammalian transmission, triggering an outbreak among European seals.

In 2014, an avian flu strain spread rapidly among harbor and gray seals in northern Europe, killing roughly a tenth of the population.

For the new study, published Wednesday in the journal Cell Host and Microbe, researchers exposed ferrets to different strains of H10N7, the virus subtype responsible for the 2014 seal flu outbreak.

Scientists found most avian flu strains failed to infect the ferrets, but that seal-adapted strains were successfully transmitted via the air from ferret to ferret.

The study suggests avian flu can regularly and repeatedly acquire mutations that make them more transmissible among mammals.

“Usually, these occasional introductions of avian influenza viruses in seals, like in humans, are ‘dead ends’ because the virus is not transmissible from one individual to another,” first study author Sander Herfst said in a news release.

“However, sometimes these viruses adapt to the new host and acquire the ability to be transmitted between individuals,” said Herft, an assistant professor of molecular virology and virus evolution at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Researchers suspect the 2014 outbreak, which killed some 2,500 seals, began in western Sweden when one or more seals came into contact with infected birds or virus-laden bird droppings.

“Transmission from seal to seal is likely to have occurred via aerosols or respiratory droplets, most probably whilst the seals are resting on land,” said Herfst. “However, direct contact transmission between seals can also not be excluded because seals are highly social and interact with each other regularly.”

Lab tests showed the same strains found spreading among seals were able to spread among ferrets.

“The seal-adapted virus was efficiently transmitted through the air via aerosols or droplets between ferrets, whereas the avian virus was not,” Herfst said. “These findings suggest that the mutations the avian virus underwent once it took hold within the seal population have allowed it to become transmissible via the air between mammals.”

Comparisons of avian flu strain genomes and mammal-adapted strains revealed changes to the genes responsible for the regulation of hemagglutinin, a protein on the surface of influenza viruses.

Researchers found the mutations caused the virus to prefer to attach to mammal virus receptors in the respiratory tract, rather than to avian receptors.

Because the strains isolated for the study were collected late in the 2014 outbreak, scientists suggest the mutations may have occurred after the virus was already spreading among seals.

“The mutations that we identified are similar to the ones acquired in 1957 in the first year of the H2N2 pandemic in humans,” Herfst said. “In addition, these same mutations were required to render highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses of the H5N1 subtype transmissible via the air between ferrets — a model organism for mammal influenza research.”

The findings suggests influenza strains may regularly adopt mutations that enable spread among mammals, the researchers said.

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Seal Beach Rite Aid Offers Flu Shots, Coronavirus Testing

SEAL BEACH, CA — Need a flu shot? or a coronavirus test? Rite Aid now offers flu shots and has opened additional, no-charge COVID-19 drive-thru testing at pharmacies across the state.

This year isn’t like most in the past and health officials are encouraging people to get a flu shot.

“Getting a flu shot early is more important than ever this year to maintain a healthy immune system as the COVID-19 pandemic and flu season converge,” the company said.

Several new Rite Aid drive-thru testing sites were added in California in September:

  • 12541 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach

  • 405 West Main St., Brawley

  • 11200 Olive Dr., Bakersfield

  • 16120 Bear Valley Rd., Victorville

  • 1309 Fulton Ave., Sacramento

Pharmacists will oversee coronavirus testing and offer simple self-swab nasal tests from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

All adults 18 years old or older, even if they are not exhibiting virus symptoms, are eligible for testing and need to pre-register at www.riteaid.com.

Through its partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rite Aid opened 39 new locations across California, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, and now operates a total of 303 testing sites across 15 states.

Learn more and schedule a COVID-19 test at a Rite Aid testing site.
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This article originally appeared on the Los Alamitos-Seal Beach Patch

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