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How did a virus from the Atlantic infect mammals in the Pacific?



Sea otters and seals in the Pacific off the coast of Alaska are infected with a virus that was previously observed only in animals in the Atlantic.

A new study suggests that melting ice in the Arctic could be to blame – and that climate change could help move the disease to new areas and new animals.

Tracey Goldstein, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, became curious when Sea Otters in the Pacific in 2004, two years after a large outbreak of European seals, tested positive for the Phocine Distemper Virus – a cousin of Canine Distemper Virus .

The genetic analysis showed that the infections are related in both groups. Dr. Goldstein wondered how a virus, usually transmitted through direct contact with a sick animal, had managed to travel from one north ocean to another.

Until 2002, the oceans around the Arctic Circle remained largely frozen even in late summer. This year, the Arctic Ocean was passable between the North Atlantic and the Pacific at the end of the summer, she and her colleagues noted.

Although sea otters are not far from home, seals may have been able to transmit the virus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Goldstein.

The melting of sea ice is a viable explanation for the spread of viruses – but not the only one, said Charles Innis, veterinarian and director of animal health at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

"A skeptic could argue that this virus could potentially be transmitted through an intermediate host, such as a bird that can fly far," said Drs. Innis, who was not involved in the new study. "Or maybe it will be transferred in the ballast water of ships or the like."

Even the illegal trade in pets or wildlife or spoiled meat shipped from coast to coast could spread a virus, he added.

But she fears that another infection cycle is not far off. "These channels in the ice seem to be open every year, so these rare events could occur more often," she said.


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