In a new study, Australian scientists show that the species is particularly susceptible to a type of bird flu with pandemic potential.
Scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia, released this week the result of the genetic mapping of the species Cygnus atratus, popularly known as the black swan.
The discovery was presented in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) database, part of the United States National Library of Medicine.
The researchers decided to study the black swan specifically because it is particularly susceptible to highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Although it is a common disease in birds, there is a possibility that the virus causing the infection may “jump” from one species to another – and it could eventually jump to humans.
Studies indicate that Sars-CoV-2, responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, went through a similar process: it jumped from bats to us. “If the current pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that it is important we know more about potential animal-to-human viruses early,” said study leader Kirsty Short in a statement.
According to the researchers, this “jump” occurs mainly by direct contact with wild animals, which, in turn, can occur by eating their meat, hunting, or destroying their natural habitat. The “transfer” of HPAI to humans, however, is rare: since 2003, the virus has infected only 800 people, approximately, worldwide.
This does not mean that scientists can forget about them – quite the opposite. “More than 50 per cent of infected individuals have not survived the disease,” Short said. According to the United Nations (UN), HPAI is highly contagious and, since 2011, the disease has been endemic in poultry in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Among all species of wild birds, black swans are the most susceptible to severe symptoms of the disease and can die just 24 hours after infection. On the other hand, ducks generally have mild symptoms and heal easily.
“We therefore wanted to understand if the swan genome was missing some component of the immune response that makes them uniquely susceptible to HPAI,” Short said. She and her colleagues identified important genetic differences in the black swan compared to other species of swan and birds in general. “We’re also employing computer-driven large scale comparisons of these genomes,” she added.