Wild birds have been implicated in the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) of the H5N1 subtype, prompting surveillance along migratory flyways. Sampling of wild birds for avian influenza virus (AIV) is often conducted in remote regions, but results are often delayed because of the need to transport samples to a laboratory equipped for molecular testing. Real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR) is a molecular technique that offers one of the most accurate and sensitive methods for diagnosis of AIV. The previously strict lab protocols needed for rRT-PCR are now being adapted for the field. Development of freeze-dried (lyophilized) reagents that do not require cold chain, with sensitivity at the level of wet reagents has brought on-site remote testing to a practical goal. Here we present a method for the rapid diagnosis of AIV in wild birds using an rRT-PCR unit (Ruggedized Advanced Pathogen Identification Device or RAPID, Idaho Technologies, Salt Lake City, UT) that employs lyophilized reagents (Influenza A Target 1 Taqman; ASAY-ASY-0109, Idaho Technologies). The reagents contain all of the necessary components for testing at appropriate concentrations in a single tube: primers, probes, enzymes, buffers and internal positive controls, eliminating errors associated with improper storage or handling of wet reagents. The portable unit performs a screen for Influenza A by targeting the matrix gene and yields results in 2-3 hours. Genetic subtyping is also possible with H5 and H7 primer sets that target the hemagglutinin gene. The system is suitable for use on cloacal and oropharyngeal samples collected from wild birds, as demonstrated here on the migratory shorebird species, the western sandpiper (Calidrus mauri) captured in Northern California. Animal handling followed protocols approved by the Animal Care and Use Committee of the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center and permits of the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory. The primary advantage of this technique is to expedite diagnosis of wild birds, increasing the chances of containing an outbreak in a remote location. On-site diagnosis would also prove useful for identifying and studying infected individuals in wild populations. The opportunity to collect information on host biology (immunological and physiological response to infection) and spatial ecology (migratory performance of infected birds) will provide insights into the extent to which wild birds can act as vectors for AIV over long distances.
Additional publication details
Rapid diagnosis of avian influenza virus in wild birds: Use of a portable rRT-PCR and freeze-dried reagents in the field