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



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

A new study suggests that ice melt in the Arctic may be to blame – and that climate change can help spread the disease to new areas and new animals.

Tracy Goldstein, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, became curious when Pacific otters tested positive for the Focin plague virus – a cousin of canine plague virus – in 2004, for two years after a major outbreak among European port seals.

Genetic analysis has shown that infections in both groups are related. Dr. Goldstein wondered how the virus usually passes in direct contact with a sick animal, manages to get from one northern ocean to another.

Until 2002, the seas around the Arctic Circle remained largely frozen even in late summer. This year, however, the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean was passable in late summer, she and her colleagues found.

Although sea otters do not go far from home, seals could probably transmit the virus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, says Dr. Goldstein.

Sea ice melting is a possible explanation for the spread of viruses – but it is not the only one, said Charles Inis, veterinarian and director of animal health at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

"A skeptic may argue that this virus may be transmitted through an intermediate host, such as a bird that can fly long distances," says Dr. Inis, who did not participate in the new study. "Or maybe it is transmitted in ballast water by ships or something like that."

Even illegal trade in pets or wild animals or contaminated meat transported from one coast to another can spread the virus, he added.

But she worries that another cycle of infection may not be far off. "These ice channels seem to open every year, so these rare events can become more frequent," she said.


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