Bird flu was first reported in Antarctica, raising concerns that the deadly virus could pose a threat to penguins and other bird species on that continent.
Scientists feared that the worst outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in history would reach Antarctica, an important breeding ground for many birds.
British Antarctic Survey, the United Kingdom’s (UK) national polar research institute, said its staff had taken samples from brown raptors after they died on Bird Island in South Georgia, north of Antarctica. The tests were sent to Britain and tested positive for the virus.
The virus was most likely spread by birds that returned from their migration to South America, where a large number of bird flu cases have been reported.
Visitors to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are subject to advanced biosecurity measures, and scientific fieldwork involving birds has been halted.
Since the virus was first noticed in 1996, there have been frequent outbreaks.
Since mid-2021, much larger outbreaks have begun to occur southward in previously intact areas, including South America, resulting in mass deaths of wild birds and millions of poultry culled.
Michelle Wille, a bird flu expert at the University of Melbourne, said the spread of bird flu to the Antarctic region was “devastating news”.
“The situation can change quickly,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Ian Brown, head of virology at the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, warned last week that there is a risk that migratory birds could spread the virus from South America to Antarctica and the islands in the area.
This could be a “real threat” to the population of birds such as penguins that are unique to Antarctica, he said.