Quack, quack – quack it out! Twelve years of flu research in Mallards!

A good day in the duck trap! Duck trapper Gabriel Norevik is herding the ducks. Photo by Ville Fagerström

A good day in the duck trap! Duck trapper Gabriel Norevik is herding the ducks. Photo by Ville Fagerström

By Jonas Waldenström

It is time to do a field season wrap-up. There are still a few weeks of fieldwork to do, but now it is mainly the everyday routine trapping of ducks that remains. And when I say routine, I mean it. We have run our Mallard disease-monitoring scheme at Ottenby Bird Observatory, Sweden, since 2002. A full dozen years with daily sampling during the field seasons! That is truly remarkable!

If you don’t think 12 years is a long time, then you are likely not a scientist, at least not one working with animals in the wild. The truth is that long time series are rare in biological systems. Very rare. The few that are still running (some for 50+ years) have produced fantastic data, such as the Darwin Finches at the Galapagos island Daphne Mayor, run by Peter and Rosemary Grant since 1973, the St Kilda Soay Sheep project in the UK, the Great Tit population in Wytham Woods outside Oxford, or the Collared Flycatchers of Southern Gotland, Sweden. For flu, there are the sampling schemes of shorebirds at Delaware Bay, and the long-running duck sampling in Alberta by St Jude’s Children Research Hospital – two programs that have shaped our view of flu. But why then, you may ask, are long time series rare? That my friend is an excellent question!

One failed grant application can put a grinding halt to a time series.

One failed grant application can put a grinding halt to a time series.

To start with, funding typically favors shorter projects, roughly 2-4 years long. No research body says ‘cool project, let’s fund it for the next 20 years’, unless it is mega-large projects like CERN (in France/Switzerland), the International Space Station (in orbit), or the Human Genome project (finished). For us mortal researchers, a long time series rely on successful applications in grant cycle, after grant cycle, after grant cycle. This is a major hurdle for long projects. For instance, the Swedish Research Council, one of the main funding bodies in Sweden, turned down 84 % of the proposals in 2013. Thus, it only takes one year with bad luck to put a grinding halt to a time series.

And even if it is the senior researcher(s) who fund the project, it is often the PhD and postdoctoral students that actually run it. The length of a PhD varies (in Sweden it is 4 years) but are fairly short, and postdocs even shorter. When the student has graduated, chances are that the continued fieldwork simply dies, especially if techniques/skills were not shared between staff, or that if no suitable replacement was found. Also, similar to old land-owning dynasties (where a drunken playboy lost the manor house and the estate playing dice), a wrong recruit may effectively spoil a time series.

The staff is always important in any project...

The staff is always important in any project…

Another pitfall is curiosity. Researchers are by and large driven by curiosity, and sometimes the allure of greener pastures elsewhere seems more compelling to pursue, than to dig where you stand yet another year. Consequently, there is a risk that the leading scientist leaves a project that could have grown into an important long-term data series because he/she started to grow bored and restless. Thus, funding is scarce, time changes, people move and priorities shift. And as a result few time series reach a decade.

So how come the Ottenby data series is still running after twelve years?

The project was started by professor Björn Olsen (birder, physician, and the chair of Infectious Diseases at Uppsala University) in 2002. Björn had worked with tick-borne infections, such as Lyme Disease, and gastrointestinal bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, and when a move to Kalmar Hospital brought him close to Ottenby Bird Observatory it was like pieces of the puzzle just came together. For what can be more of a perfect match for a physician interested in birds than the avian zoonotic pathogen influenza A virus? And to have a field site at the best birding spot in Sweden! Fabulous!

The dismantled duck trap from an earlier trapping period 1960s – 1980 was resurrected and hopes were high that ducks would start to appear. Which they did, but only after a few months of very low trapping numbers, which made everyone wondering whether we would have to cancel the whole thing. Furthermore, funding was initially modest. Agencies thought there were more pressing research fronts – one review of a proposal actually dismissed the value of birds as hosts for influenza at all, as he/she believed minks were the most important hosts… But the work was done, the publications started to come out and brick by brick the flu house was constructed. Funding came in more steadily, and in the last decade we have had grants from the regional councils (FORSS, Sparbanksstiftelsen Kronan), national councils (including the Swedish Research Councils VR and FORMAS), and international councils (EU-FP6, NIAID), plus authorities such as the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the European Commission. So far the grants have come when we needed them, and never too late. It has been close sometimes, but so far so good. Another reasons to why we still are in the business are great collaborations! Already from the start we collaborated closely with Albert D. M. E. Osterhaus and Ron Fouchier from Erasmus MC in Rotterdam – a collaboration that has continued ever since. Other long term research friends are Johan Elmberg in Kristianstad, Åke Lundqvist in Stockholm, Vladimir Grosbois and Nicolas Gaidet at CIRAD, France, and Martin Wikelski at Max Planck in Constance, Germany, as well as Calle Nyqvist and Kalmar Surveillance AB! And many, many more!

A tipping point was when the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 crossed Eurasia and hit Europe with force in the winter 2005/2006. This was almost like a deus ex machina moment, and suddenly the things we did were what everyone wanted. We were at the center – the eye of a hurricane – and delivered data to national and European authorities, helped with risk assessments, answered billions of news reporters, and through out it all continued to do good science and publish quality papers. In those days, Björn could be seen in three, four major newspapers, and national TV in the same day! Crazy times!

Throughout there has been a great team that made it all possible. The Ottenby project has so far directly involved seven PhD students:

  • Anders Wallensten (now at the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control)
  • Neus Latorre-Margalef (now at University of Georgia, USA)
  • John Wahlgren (now at Qiagene in Denmark)
  • Josef Järhult (rising star at Uppsala University)
  • Goran Orozovic
  • Michelle Wille (still in the lab trenches)
  • Daniel Bengtsson (still in the field trenches)

And five postdocs:

  • Elsa Jourdain (now at INRA, France)
  • Gunnar Gunnarsson (now at Kristianstad University, Sweden)
  • Conny Tolf (longstanding king in the lab)
  • Alexis Avril (battling the computer with CMR epidemiology models)
  • Joanne Chapman (defending the innate immune system of ducks)

Lab work has been immense and a large number of hands have helped out during longer and shorter times. Among others: Abbtesaim Jawad, Sara Larsson, Maria Blomqvist, Diana Axelsson-Olsson, Lovisa Svensson, Petra Griekspoor, Jenny Olofsson, Jorge Hernandez, Oskar Gunnarsson, Lorena Grubovic, Anna Schager, and many, many more.

And in the field we talk about more than 40 duck trappers and >33,000 duck trap/retrap occasions! The two most frequent are Stina Andersson and Frida Johnsson that have made several seasons in the duck trap! The list is too long to post here – but I promise to return soon with a ‘best of’ post with statistics of duck trapping and trappers! Simply, without the trappers no science – incredibly important people!

Who knows what the future may bring? Painting by French artist in 1910 imagining what life would be in 2000.

Who knows what the future may bring? Painting by French artist in 1910 imagining what life would be in 2000.

To sum up a long post: we have done well because of fortunate timing, a good study site, great staff in the field and in the lab, good collaborators, and lastly great science! A few weeks ago we learned that we have funding for another three years – hopefully we can get this virus-host time series through adolescence and into adulthood! Time will tell.

In the mean time – shout it out for the ducks! Quack, quack, quack!

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3 thoughts on “Quack, quack – quack it out! Twelve years of flu research in Mallards!

  1. I wished we had this in East Asia, where it seems to be more more important
    with the crossover from wild ducks to domestic ducks and then chickens
    (and then humans ?) You mentioned H5N1 which came to Europe but it emerged
    in China and it is still not well understand how and where. And now we have H7N9.
    Sadly funding and research is a national think, (while the consequences are global,)
    else these projects might have happened in Asia instead.
    happened in Asia instead …

  2. Pingback: What can 1081 influenza viruses tell you? | Zoonotic Ecology and Epidemiology

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