1. Migratory birds are major candidates for long-distance dispersal of zoonotic pathogens. In recent years, wildfowl have been suspected of contributing to the rapid geographic spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus. Experimental infection studies reveal that some wild ducks, geese and swans shed this virus asymptomatically and hence have the potential to spread it as they move.
2. We evaluate the dispersive potential of HPAI H5N1 viruses by wildfowl through an analysis of the movement range and movement rate of birds monitored by satellite telemetry in relation to the apparent asymptomatic infection duration (AID) measured in experimental studies. We analysed the first large-scale data set of wildfowl movements, including 228 birds from 19 species monitored by satellite telemetry in 2006–2009, over HPAI H5N1 affected regions of Asia, Europe and Africa.
3. Our results indicate that individual migratory wildfowl have the potential to disperse HPAI H5N1 over extensive distances, being able to perform movements of up to 2900 km within timeframes compatible with the duration of asymptomatic infection.
4. However, the likelihood of such virus dispersal over long distances by individual wildfowl is low: we estimate that for an individual migratory bird there are, on average, only 5–15 days per year when infection could result in the dispersal of HPAI H5N1 virus over 500 km.
5. Staging at stopover sites during migration is typically longer than the period of infection and viral shedding, preventing birds from dispersing a virus over several consecutive but interrupted long-distance movements. Intercontinental virus dispersion would therefore probably require relay transmission between a series of successively infected migratory birds.
6. Synthesis and applications. Our results provide a detailed quantitative assessment of the dispersive potential of HPAI H5N1 virus by selected migratory birds. Such dispersive potential rests on the assumption that free-living wildfowl will respond analogously to captive, experimentally-infected birds, and that asymptomatic infection will not alter their movement abilities. Our approach of combining experimental exposure data and telemetry information provides an analytical framework for quantifying the risk of spread of avian-borne diseases.