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Melting Ice May Release Frozen Influenza Viruses

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio, November 27, 2006 (ENS) - Long-dormant strains of influenza, packed in ice in remote global outposts, could be unleashed by melting and migratory birds, according to Professor Scott Rogers at Bowling Green State University.

Chair of the Department of Biological Science, Dr. Rogers is in the middle of a two-year, $139,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

“We've found viral RNA in the ice in Siberia, and it's along the major flight paths of migrating waterfowl,” whose pathways take them to North America, Asia and Australia, and interconnect with other migratory paths to Europe and Africa, explains Rogers.

The virus that Rogers and his collaborators have found is closest to a strain that circulated from 1933-38 and again in the 1960s.

Viruses, he says, can be preserved in ice over long periods of time, then released decades later when humans may no longer be immune to them.

For instance, survivors of the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918 had immunity to the responsible strain, called H1N1, but that immunity has died with them, meaning a recurrence "could take hold as an epidemic," said Rogers.

The research is being published in the December issue of the "Journal of Virology."

The researchers are looking to expand their examination to Canadian and Alaskan lakes, along with those in Greenland, Antarctica and Siberia that they've already tested.

"It's getting more and more difficult to ship water and ice on airplanes," even more so now than right after Sept. 11, 2001, Rogers complains. "There are more delays for customs just to look at the samples," which are packed in dry ice in plastic foam containers but nonetheless start melting after two or three days.

Rogers points out that it remains to be demonstrated that the frozen viruses are still alive. But "we think they can survive a long time" in ice, he reiterates, saying that tomato mosaic virus has been found in 140,000 year old ice in Greenland.

Dr. Rogers presented a poster on the research at the 11th International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Pacific Rim, held November 16-18 in Singapore.
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