NYC High School Students Hunt for Bird Flu in Central Park

Concerns about the spread of bird flu into dairy cattle and subsequently to human dairy workers have heightened the importance of a unique project undertaken by New York City high school students.

The New York City Virus Hunters are diligently working to identify birds carrying the deadly disease. During their strolls through Central Park, the group eagerly collects fresh bird droppings for analysis.

High school students participating in this project are paid as Junior Scientist interns by Mount Sinai and BioBus. Their primary task is to collect fresh bird feces samples, as explained by intern Kailani Gaynor.

Central Park, a sanctuary for both local and migratory birds, offers a unique urban environment for this study. The interns aim to collect samples from a variety of birds to ensure a diverse dataset, noted by intern Kadiatou Kante. Intern Sadia Choudhury added that they also observe the types of birds around the collection sites.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health since its inception in 2020, the project aims to understand how bird flu can adapt and spread between species. Dr. Christine Marizzi, BioBus director of community service, emphasized the importance of early and comprehensive data collection to assess potential risks.

At Mount Sinai’s Krammer Lab, the collected samples undergo analysis under the guidance of lead scientist Philip Meade, PhD. The goal is to obtain the full genetic sequence of any identified viruses for further analysis.

While Meade expressed concern about the virus spreading to dairy cows rather than directly to humans, he highlighted the importance of understanding the virus’s potential impact on pets, particularly those frequenting parks.

Out of over 1,900 samples collected in a year from bird feces, water sources, and patients at the Wild Bird Fund, the Virus Hunters identified H5N1 in six birds, including three geese and a sick chicken in Upper Manhattan. However, none of the droppings tested positive for flu.

Their research findings were recently published in the American Society for Microbiology’s Journal of Virology. The next cohort of NYC Virus Hunters, comprising six new students, will begin in the fall.

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