A small number of wild birds in New York City have tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. This finding was reported in a recent study, which emerged from a wild bird monitoring program. The study, published in the Journal of Virology by the American Society for Microbiology, was a collaboration between BioBus, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the Wild Bird Fund. The research highlights that the risk of zoonotic infections and potential pandemics is not confined to rural areas and poultry farms but also extends to urban environments.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first large-scale study of avian influenza in an urban area with active community involvement,” said Christine Marizzi, the principal investigator of the New York City Virus Hunters program and director of community science at BioBus in Harlem, New York City. “Birds are crucial for identifying which influenza and other avian viruses are circulating in New York, and understanding which ones could be dangerous to other birds and humans,” continued Marizzi, who is also a co-author of the study. “Community involvement is essential because we need more eyes on the ground.”

The program involves local high school students in research and communication activities as paid interns under expert guidance. Equipped with proper protective gear, these students collect bird fecal samples from urban parks and green spaces. Additional samples from urban wild birds are provided by local animal rehabilitation centers like the Wild Bird Fund and the Animal Care Centers of New York. Students also assist in analyzing all samples for viruses at the Krammer laboratory of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Between January 2022 and November 2023, NYCVH collected and analyzed 1,927 samples, detecting H5N1 in six urban birds from four different species. All positive samples came from urban wildlife rehabilitation centers, underscoring the crucial role these centers play in viral surveillance.

Genetic analysis of the samples revealed slight variations, indicating two different genotypes, which are a mix of the Eurasian H5N1 clade and local North American avian influenza viruses. New York City, being a popular stopover for migrating wild birds, sees significant avian traffic. “Finding H5N1 in city birds doesn’t mean a human influenza pandemic is imminent. H5N1 has been present in New York City for about two years without any reported human cases,” Marizzi added. She emphasized that outreach activities are aimed at raising awareness about H5N1 in city birds and educating the public on protective measures.

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