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Avian influenza is a contagious viral infection that can affect all species of birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, pet birds and wild birds). Some avian influenza (AI) strains can also cause illness in humans. From December 2014 to January 2015 there was an outbreak of a highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the Fraser Valley which involved 11 commercial and two non-regulated residential farms, leading to the death or destruction of approximately 240,000 birds.

The outbreak virus was identified as highly-pathogenic avian influenza H5N2. To date, sequencing has revealed that this virus was created from a ‘reassortment’, or mixing, between a North American AI virus and the highly pathogenic Eurasian H5N8 virus. The H5N2 virus is unique in its ability to cause immediate high mortality in domestic poultry, and it is the first time a Eurasian HPAI H5 lineage virus has caused an outbreak in poultry in North America. Although the H5N2 virus is not zoonotic (transmissible from animals to people), other Eurasian H5 viruses have caused significant human morbidity and mortality. For this reason, the arrival of a Eurasian H5 virus in North America has potential public health implications.

A new research project, funded by Genome BC, Genome Canada, Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is hoping to shed light on where the source of the H5N2 strain came from and develop better tools to predict future outbreaks. Within the coming year, the project will seek to determine whether wild waterfowl (i.e., ducks and geese) were the source of the virus, and whether analysis of wetland sediments using advanced molecular techniques can be used as an early warning system for arrival of dangerous influenza viruses in the Fraser Valley, and elsewhere in Canada.

“Ultimately, our goal is to develop an annual wetland sediment surveillance program as early as October 2015, so that we can be ready for the fall influx of migratory waterfowl….and the influenza viruses they may bring with them” says Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, a co-leader of the research project and Leader of Veterinary Science and Diagnostics at the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal Health Centre. “Not only will this project shed light on the origin of the most recent AI outbreak, but it will also allow us to develop an effective and efficient way to monitor AI viruses in waterfowl, and to predict and prevent future AI outbreaks.”

The project, entitled Genomic Analysis of Wetland Sediment as a Tool for Avian Influenza Virus Surveillance in Wild Waterfowl is valued at $300,000. Other co-project leaders include Dr. Patrick Tang, Dr. Natalie Prystajecky and Dr. William Hsiao from the BC Public Health Microbiology and Reference Laboratory, which is part of Lower Mainland Pathology and Medicine Services with the Provincial Health Services Authority. Another partner on the project is the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), the organization responsible for conducting wildlife surveillance for diseases of agricultural and public health importance on behalf of Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“The partnerships brought together for this project are remarkable,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President and CEO of Genome BC. “All of the players are at the table and this means that impacts and application will happen seamlessly and quickly: this is the value of investing in these emerging issues.”


About Genome British Columbia: 
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $660M in 211 research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada. Genome BC is supported by the Province of British Columbia, the Government of Canada through Genome Canada and Western Economic Diversification Canada and more than 300 international public and private co-funding partners.

Jennifer Boon 
Communications Manager, Genome BC 
Mobile: 778-327-8374 


  • On December 4, 2014, the National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases, Winnipeg, Manitoba, identified the outbreak strain as a highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N2 virus.

  • Sequencing revealed that this virus appeared to be the result of reassortment between a North American AI virus and highly pathogenic Eurasian H5N8 virus.

  • This virus is remarkable because of its ability to cause immediate high mortality in domestic poultry, because it is the first time a Eurasian HPAI H5 lineage virus has caused an outbreak in poultry in North America, and because this particular reassortment has not been observed anywhere before. Although H5N2 is not believed to be zoonotic, other Eurasian strains of avian influenza are responsible for significant human morbidity and mortality, therefore the arrival of a Eurasian H5 virus in North America has potential public health implications.

  • Given the economic impacts of avian influenza outbreaks, and the potential public health risks, there is a need to better a) understand the source of the H5N2 virus, and b) to predict and prevent future AI outbreaks. It is currently suspected that the virus originated in wild waterfowl because waterfowl are known to be one of the reservoirs for almost all strains of influenza A, and because waterfowl migration is the most plausible mechanism by which a Eurasian AI strain could arrive in North America. There is additional evidence that strain was introduced by waterfowl.

  • To date, waterfowl surveillance has been focused on dead birds, but AI does not normally cause mortality in waterfowl. Since AI is shed in bird feces, sampling wetland sediments where feces accumulate would be a more efficient and effective way of detecting AI in waterfowl populations.

  • The objective of the current project is to determine if genomic analysis of wetlands sediments could be an effective tool to understand the 2014/2015 HPAI H5N2 outbreak and to develop a methodological approach that can be used for future AI surveillance.

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Nicola Katz
Directrice, Communications
Génome Canada
Cell. : 613-297-0267