‘Major Leap’ in Bird Virus to Mammals Threatens Yet Another Pandemic
Alike highly pathogenic avian influenza virus that is kill tens of millions of chickens and other birds in the past year has come a lot closer to infect humansalso.
An unusual outbreak of the H5N1 virus in mink—a relative of mink—at a fur farm in Spain last fall also infected farm employees with the virus. Rapid action by health authorities helped prevent any human infection. This time.
But bird flu will not go away. And as H5N1 continues to spread among wild and domestic birds, killing millions of animals and squeezing egg supplies, it’s also getting closer and closer to the human population. Adel Talaat, a professor of pathological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Daily Beast: “This bird flu… has the potential to become a huge problem for humans.
It may be only a matter of time before H5N1 achieves “animal-to-human disease” on a large scale and makes the leap for humanity. If and when that happens, we could face another major virus crisis. In addition to the COVID pandemic, seasonal RSV is worsening, with occasional chickenpox outbreaks and annual flu outbreaks.
Reports this week suggest that the current wave of bird flu may spread to mammals with more frequency. Scientists find traces of bird flu of the seals that died in a “mass death event” in the Caspian Sea in December, and the BBC reported this week that tests in the UK have Viruses found in a wide range of mammals up and down the country. On January 9, World Health Organization was informed that a 9-year-old girl from Ecuador had tested positive.
Bird flu is not new. Scientists first identified this virus in the 1870s. There have been dozens of major outbreaks over the years—and they’ve become more frequent and more severe due to the population of domesticated poultry worldwide. Demand has expanded to feed the growing population.
H5N1, a more severe “avian influenza” virus—or HPAI—first emerged in China in the 1990s. It and other HPAIs have caused zoonotic disease. animals to humans on a small scale, mainly in Asia. Several dozen people have died from bird flu in recent decades.
But so far, bird flu has mostly been infectious, well, bird. That makes it a big deal for poultry farmers. And for those who buy eggs, of course. The current H5N1 outbreak has killed or forced farmers to destroy, nearly 60 million chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks exclusively in the United States. The removal pushed the price of eggs to nearly $5 a dozen at U.S. grocery stores last fall, based on United States Department of Agriculture. That’s many times the long-term average price.
“The ability to achieve sustained transmission in mammals is a huge leap for influenza viruses, so the mink event is a big deal.“
— James Lawler, University of Nebraska Medical Center
Bird flu is taking a leap
Higher egg prices would be the least of our problems if large-scale zoonotic disease ever caused a pandemic of avian influenza in humans. And that’s why scientists and health officials closely monitor H5N1 and related HPAIs as they spread and mutate. For epidemiologists, the outbreak of avian flu on a ferret farm in northwest Spain is an alarming sign. An ominous sign that zoonotic disease may be more likely to occur.
Spanish health officials first noticed the outbreak in early October, when the death rate among mink at a large farm in Galicia tripled. Biological samples from the farm’s 52,000 ferrets contained H5N1. This is the first time that bird flu has infected domestic ferrets in Europe.
Authorities ordered the destruction of all ferrets at the affected farm. At the same time, isolate and test 11 farm workers. Fortunately, no one was infected with the virus.
It was a close call. And it’s all the more worrying because no one knows for sure what happened. “The origin of the outbreak is still unknown,” a team led by virologist Montserrat Agüero reported in latest issue belong to Monitoring Europe, a journal of epidemiology. It is possible that wild birds transmit the virus to ferrets. It is also possible that pathogens are present in the ferret’s food, including raw chicken.
Equally troubling, the virus doesn’t just spread from birds to ferrets. It may also have spread from ferrets to other so do weasels, Agüero’s team discovered. “This is suggested by the increasing number of infected animals being identified Later confirmed disease.”
The transmission after that shingles in a new species is how an animal virus like H5N1 can cause a new pandemic. That’s what happened with COVID, after the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread from bats or pangolins to humans in late 2019. That’s what happened with chickenpox, after the pathogen was first introduced. first spread from monkeys and rodents to humans, possibly decades ago.
James Lawler, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told The Daily Beast: “The ability to achieve sustained transmission in mammals is a huge leap forward for the virus- flu withdrawal, so the mink event is a big deal. “It certainly increases the risk for [a] species-jump to humans.”
The bird flu outbreak in Spain had a happy ending for everyone involved—except, of course, for those 52,000 ferrets. But the next outbreak may not end so neatly. Not if scientists belatedly notice an animal-to-human leap, or if the transmission of the virus exceeds the ability of health officials to cull affected animals, isolate them. people exposed to and isolating the virus.
Bird flu is more than many viruses that require constant vigilance. It is infecting more birds than ever before, jumping to mammals in more places, and learning new genetic tricks that increase the risk to humans.
All that can be said is that our bird flu problem may get worse before it gets better. “The ongoing, widespread outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza are causing widespread concern,” Lawler said.