For researchers who study avian influenza, not every trip to the beach is a vacation. Every year, in May, thousands of horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean in Delaware Bay to mate and lay their eggs. These eggs are delicious snacks for enormous flocks of shorebirds, migrating north from their wintering grounds in South America. As the birds congregate on the beaches, they also swap influenza viruses.
These dense concentrations of birds make Delaware Bay a good place to find new strains of bird flu. With the help of funding from NIAID’s Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) program, researchers from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the University of Georgia, and other organizations travel to Delaware Bay to test the birds for the flu, and collect fecal samples from the beach. These samples will be taken back to a lab environment where any viruses will be cultured, then stored for other researchers to use in their work. Identifying and studying new strains of influenza viruses helps researchers understand how these viruses emerge, and also helps prepare for the next influenza pandemic by guiding the development of new vaccines and therapeutics.
To learn more, watch a video depicting a typical sampling trip: