U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


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Ellis JW, Root JJ, McCurdy LM, Bentler KT, Barrett NL, VanDalen KK, et al. (2021) Avian influenza A virus susceptibility, infection, transmission, and antibody kinetics in European starlings. PLoS Pathog 17(8): e1009879. https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1009879


The work is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication.


Avian influenza A viruses (IAVs) pose risks to public, agricultural, and wildlife health. Bridge hosts are spillover hosts that share habitat with both maintenance hosts (e.g., mallards) and target hosts (e.g., poultry). We conducted a comprehensive assessment of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), a common visitor to both urban and agricultural environments, to assess whether this species might act as a potential maintenance or bridge host for IAVs. First, we experimentally inoculated starlings with a wild bird IAV to investigate susceptibility and replication kinetics. Next, we evaluated whether IAV might spill over to starlings from sharing resources with a widespread IAV reservoir host. We accomplished this using a specially designed transmission cage to simulate natural environmental transmission by exposing starlings to water shared with IAV-infected mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). We then conducted a contact study to assess intraspecies transmission between starlings. In the initial experimental infection study, all inoculated starlings shed viral RNA and seroconverted. All starlings in the transmission study became infected and shed RNA at similar levels. All but one of these birds seroconverted, but detectable antibodies were relatively transient, falling to negative levels in a majority of birds by 59 days post contact. None of the contact starlings in the intraspecies transmission experiment became infected. In summary, we demonstrated that starlings may have the potential to act as IAV bridge hosts if they share water with IAV-infected waterfowl. However, starlings are unlikely to act as maintenance hosts due to limited, if any, intraspecies transmission. In addition, starlings have a relatively brief antibody response which should be considered when interpreting serology from field samples. Further study is needed to evaluate the potential for transmission from starlings to poultry, a possibility enhanced by starling's behavioral trait of forming very large flocks which can descend on poultry facilities when natural resources are scarce. This is an open access article, free of all copyright, and may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, built upon, or otherwise used by anyone for any lawful purpose. The work is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication.