Birds poop out flu viruses that could become deadly global pandemics. These scientists swab their butts to protect us from that threat.
Hilary Brueck/Business Insider
- We are not prepared for the next pandemic flu virus.
- If a pandemic virus were unleashed today, it could kill 30 million people in one year.
- Scientists have discovered a flu hotspot on the New Jersey shore, where flu-carrying birds from far and wide congregate each spring to eat horseshoe crab eggs.
- Researchers collect the birds' poop and swab their butts as part of crucial flu research. Here's what it looks like.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
A dangerous assassin lurks on the Jersey shore - a killer so deadly that it could wipe out 30 million people in one year.That threat is a pandemic flu virus that scientists are not yet prepared to fight. Advertisement
"The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war," Bill Gates said last year, on the 100-year anniversary of the Spanish flu, which wiped out 50 million people in 1918.
If left unchecked, a pandemic flu today could kill a total of 150 million people - near half the population of the US - in 20 months."If history has taught us anything, it's that there will be another deadly global pandemic," Gates said.
Every pandemic flu, from that Spanish flu in 1918 to the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, has originated in birds. They're nature's primordial hosts for pandemic flu.So every spring, a troupe of flu researchers flock to the southernmost tip of New Jersey in Delaware Bay, where a seasonal frenzy of migrating birds creates a unique, perhaps even unparalleled, breeding ground for the flu virus.Advertisement
Their annual research there, which involves taking samples from bird poop and butts, is a bizarre but critical ritual that scientists hope will help prevent the next pandemic flu before it's too late.
Take a look.Advertisement
Every spring, scientists and birders coalesce on Reed's Beach in New Jersey, which hosts what is essentially a giant, annual cocktail party of birds.
Up to 25 types of sea birds come to the beach for one reason: to feast on the raw eggs of horseshoe crabs.Advertisement
The timing is key, since the hubcap-sized crabs spawn for about four weeks every year, and their protein-rich eggs provide a mid-flight snack for thousands of migratory birds as they fly north for the summer.
It's such a critical moment for both the birds and the crabs that the beach is completely closed off to people for a month.Advertisement
The problem with this feeding frenzy is that these shorebirds harbor lots of flu strains in their guts. Every pandemic flu the world has ever seen has come from virus-laden birds like these.
"Those beautiful, healthy birds — about 20% of them are pooping out influenza," Robert Webster, a flu expert at St Jude Children's Research Hospital who pinpointed this Jersey bird hotspot in 1985, told Business Insider. "Where do so many infected birds come from? Where did they get their viruses from? We don't really know."Advertisement
Some bird flus become human-transmittable and can proliferate around the globe with devastating consequences. But the reason some strains jump to humans while others don't remains a mystery to scientists.
To get a closer look at the tiny birds and study the flu strains they carry, researchers bring black rifle powder, a cannon, and lots of nets to Reed's Beach each year. The goal: to trap several dozen migrating birds for tagging and study.Advertisement
Flu researchers are most interested in the birds' cloacas (their butts) and what comes out of them. Birds don't transmit the flu by swapping spit or coughing; instead, the viruses fester in their guts and spread to other birds' bellies via feces-contaminated water.
So it's important to understand what kinds of viruses these palm-sized beach critters harbor each year. To study this, scientists tote tiny swabbing tools, rubber gloves, and vials.Advertisement
The team works together to corral the birds into a spot where cannons can startle them and nets can catch them. It's a waiting game, and this process can take hours.
Dozens of birders and a few flu researchers crouch down in the tall grasses, hiding out of the birds' sight line.Advertisement
If a helicopter flies overhead or someone darts in and out of the grass, that can mess up the whole operation.
Finally, when the moment is right, a cannon fires with a loud thud. Feasting shorebirds scramble into the air.Advertisement
In an instant, just as the birds are opening their wings, a net whooshes over about 100 of them, sending the group tumbling into the sand.
The researchers rush in to pick the birds up and get them into the shade for inspection.Advertisement
Scientists wear gloves as they take samples from a few birds' butts. "It's really just a precautionary thing — we are dealing with the feces and saliva of the birds," flu researcher Alinde Fojtik, who works at the University of Georgia, said.
Samples taken from the birds' butts aren't the only way to study flu strains: Researchers also collect around 600 samples of bird poop during their week on the shore.Advertisement
They bring all of these samples to the lab, where they then conduct DNA analyses on the feces to find out which influenza strains were circulating in birds on the beach this year.
The scientists hope that by surveying and tracking so many different flu strains from year to year, they might be able to create better vaccines and drugs to combat the next pandemic flu — before it's too late.Advertisement
"As we look at the genome of the viruses that are in the wild birds and in humans and so on, the goal is that in the future, we can make predictions of which viruses are really dangerous," Webster said.
But they're not there yet. Scientists will return to this beach again next spring, as they have every year for three decades, in the hopes of one day creating better drugs and vaccines to fight flus before they kill more people.Advertisement
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