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In the next few weeks, millions of songbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl, some of which have wintered in Southeast Asia, will begin arriving in Alaska to breed. These migratory birds could bring with them the deadly strain of bird flu known as avian influenza A, or H5N1.
INSKEEP: The government has set the goal of testing 100,000 birds for the virus. The testing is mainly in Alaska, where wildlife biologists, researchers, and public health officials are preparing for the first flocks to land.
Elizabeth Arnold has this National Geographic Radio Expedition.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: It's still winter in Fairbanks. The cold stubbornly persists, and the snow- crusted landscape refuses to melt. The first sign of spring has yet to arrive.
That's the Snow Bunting, a small songbird that according to Nancy DeWitt, of the Alaska Bird Observatory, leads off the tremendous influx of migrants every spring.
NANCY DEWITT: There are other states in the country that get vagrant birds traveling here from Europe, but Alaska is the hot spot for these birds coming from the Old World to North America.
ARNOLD: Along with the Snow Bunting, six million birds, some 42 species, will arrive. Most fly from Asia here to Alaska every year. Public Health officials and scientists aim to catch and test at least a fraction of them this spring. They don't hurt them; they just swab and let them go.
The hope is to detect the virus, if and when it first arrives, and predict where it will spread next.
DeWitt's observatory is at the corner of Creamer's Field Waterfowl Refuge, a chunk of land that, come spring, is mostly water.
Today, we're postholing through the snow to reach a frozen pond where researchers from the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology have been working.
Last summer, Jonathan Runstadler, a veterinarian and immunogeneticist, along with other researchers, collected 4,500 samples from migratory birds here and in other breeding grounds in Alaska. So far, the H5N1 strain has not been found.
But there are at least 144 types of other, nonthreatening bird flu viruses, and Runstadler's interested in looking at all of them.
Here at Creamer's Field, drilling down through the ice, he's collecting samples of frozen mud. Mud is, for the most part, feces left behind from last year's migrating birds.
JONATHAN RUNSTADLER: So we're out here now, and we've been out here at different times during the winter, to see if there's virus that hangs around here.
So this is perhaps an ideal place to find influenza viruses. It's sort of like a, you know, a bus station. A good place to find infectious agents that might be transmitted between these species and that might be carried by the birds.
ARNOLD: By looking at these samples, Runstadler hopes to determine whether avian influenza viruses can overwinter, or persist in the environment. If so, does it infect birds when they come back and can it be carried by birds to other locations?
The idea is to get a better picture of how the virus moves around and how fast it could spread across North America.
Back in his laboratory, Runstadler and his postdoctorate students screen the samples. They found all kinds of influenza virus in most of them, but again, not the H5N1 strain.
RUNSTADLER: What we're trying to address in terms of research on the influenza virus is a long-term issue. It's not just an issue with H5N1 virus.
So, what we need to do is look at the whole group of influenza viruses that infect birds and other animals and understand how they change, and how they evolve, and how they move between different environments.
ARNOLD: Soon screening will have to be put aside for more testing of live birds, and Runstadler is readying for the coming field season. His work is just one small part of the research occurring in Alaska, which is suddenly center stage as scientists try to predict where the virus will appear next.
Helicopters are being chartered, new labs are being set up, wildlife biologists are being trained to sample--all part of a much larger surveillance effort mounted by the government, aimed specifically at detecting H5N1.
George Happ is a professor and director of a biomedical research program at the University. He says all eyes are on Alaska.
GEORGE HAPP: It's a little scary. We've been trying very hard not to be irresponsible, and not to be alarmist.
ARNOLD: Happ has spent more than a decade here. Like everyone else, he has a pair of cross-country skis in his office. He's the first to admit all the attention is unnerving, but says the role of research is to provide more than just detection.
If H5N1 is discovered here, he says, then we're going to need to know even more.
HAPP: Flu viruses are going to be around for a long time. And if we can use this potential pandemic as an opportunity to understand the disease better, we may be in a much more improved state to predict future potential outbreaks and to estimate how to head them off. If we know how those viruses evolve, this gives us, certainly, help in understanding more about how to develop antivirals and how to develop vaccine.
ARNOLD: But Happ says equally as important as studying the virus, is an understanding of the birds and their migration patterns. Just across campus, Kevin Winker is the guy who's been doing just that.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
ARNOLD: In a largely windowless building, Winker, an evolutionary biologist, ornithologist, and museum curator, presides over a collection of 21,000 birds.
KEVIN WINKER: But I don't know where (unintelligible). Not too good.
ARNOLD: Whoa, I've heard about this.
WINKER: Well, we've just been allowed access back in. They've renovated it and given us a bunch more space on this side. Here's a good one that's at the species level...
ARNOLD: Wandering through ceiling-high vaults, Winker randomly pulls out drawers of perfectly preserved specimens to find examples of birds that will be targets for sampling this spring--birds like the green-winged teal.
WINKER: Green-winged teal occur across Asia and North America as breeding birds--very common breeding birds in Alaska and they're a great source of avian influenza.
ARNOLD: Winker's getting ready for field season too. He'll revisit and sample sites where he's worked in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture. His expertise is an intimate knowledge of subspecies of birds--where their migrations overlap and how they intermingle. And if there's a bird die-off this spring, many of those birds will end up here.
WINKER: You often see in the literature: they recovered strain A from a duck at this location, strain B from a goose at this location. Well, as a person who's more interested in the vector than the virus, I want to know not just what species of duck or what species of goose, but a lot more detail about that vector to know how that virus got there and where it's likely to go after.
ARNOLD: Thus far, the only constant here in Alaska is that there are far more questions than answers. Winker and other university researchers have spent years working on their own, but suddenly the need for answers is more pressing and the federal government is about to show up in force.
Back in his office Winker looks up at a huge map of Alaska, raises his eyebrows and says, even with the help, the task is still daunting.
WINKER: It's the perfect time for them to be bringing in the big guns and I think they're aiming to get something on the order of 15,000 samples from Alaska's screen this year. So, with the other efforts, I'm sure that'll be at least 20,000 birds screened in Alaska. It sounds like a big number, but if your mission is early detection of a single strain, it's hunting for a very small needle in a very big haystack.
ARNOLD: Sampling will begin any day now as soon as the first birds touch down. For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.
INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a coproduction of NPR and the National Geographic Society.
MONTAGNE: Visit NPR.org for photos of the field scientists at work in Alaska. We will follow this story as the first waves of migratory birds arrive in western Alaska.
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