No one wants a bird flu outbreak

Rolling Stone

At first glance, some of the expert reactions to the recent surge in bird flu virus cases, both in the U.S. and around the world, may appear contradictory.
In the U.S. alone, bird flu has resulted in the death of more than 96 million birds in commercial and backyard flocks since February 2022, according to a USDA database.
Without question, researchers say, the H5N1 virus, also known as bird flu or avian influenza, is surging among mammals and proving itself very versatile at jumping from species to species.
“When you have a bird flu virus infecting mammal species, that raises the question of the virus becoming more adaptive for mammalian transmission,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“There are distinct barriers that bird flu viruses face when they’re infecting mammals in terms of which receptors they use.
Raw milk from cows infected with bird flu has been found to contain astounding amounts of viral particles, according to a non-peer-reviewed study.
A proactive testing and surveillance program would make rapid flu testing available at all farms, Adalja says.
“We don’t always agree, which is exactly what you expect from a complex situation, but what we always do is get to a decision and move out on it.” For now, though, the researchers are consistent in their refrain about what’s needed: heightened surveillance and testing, testing, testing.


Upon initial observation, certain professional responses to the current spike in cases of bird flu virus, both in the U.S. s. and globally, might seem contradictory. Does this situation really warrant such a minimal level of action for human safety, or is a more urgent response needed? How much livestock will be sacrificed?

Actually, however, most of the fundamentals are accepted knowledge among epidemiologists. Without a doubt, the H5N1 virus is spreading. There are thousands of documented cases of epidemics in both farmed and wild bird populations worldwide, which then spread to populations of mammals. In the United States. s. A USDA database shows that since February 2022, bird flu alone has killed over 96 million birds in backyard and commercial flocks.

“The virus has demonstrated its adaptability.”.

Though comparatively few cases were reported in recent years, human cases of sporadic H5N1 infections have been reported in 24 countries since 1997. Following a solitary instance in the U. S. Three farmworkers in this area have contracted the infection in the last two months out of the previous 25 years.

Moving forward, then, will largely depend on governments and other relevant parties conducting sufficient testing and monitoring to determine the true state of affairs, as well as on whether the testing’s outcomes will be made available in a timely and transparent manner, according to experts.

The director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and epidemiologist Michael Osterholm says, “I would like to see very widespread serologic testing done in humans—the farm workers, their family members, contacts.”. (Serologic testing scans the blood for antibodies. We can then determine whether there have been additional human transmissions that we are unaware of. That is not available to us at this time. “.

“There are just so many unknowns that worry us more than the things we know right now,” says Rick Bright, a virologist, pandemic specialist, and former head of the U.S. s. Authority for Biomedical Advanced Research and Development.

The H5N1 virus, commonly referred to as bird flu or avian influenza, is unquestionably spreading among mammals and demonstrating its remarkable versatility in jumping between different species, according to researchers. This includes the startling recent expansion to dairy cattle in the U.S. S. since March, the first time this has happened in history.

Up to twelve states may be impacted, with the virus now known to infect cows in over 85 herds. Experts are worried that the virus will be discovered in more people due to its geographic spread as well as high levels of exposure by workers at farms, slaughterhouses, milk processing facilities, and milk itself. Unpasteurized raw milk may contain the H5N1 virus, so the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a warning against consuming it.

“Virtually any mammal it comes into contact with can get infected with the virus,” claims Bright.

In an effort to stop the spread of the H5N1 virus, 4 point 2 million chickens were recently destroyed at a commercial egg farm in Iowa. Numerous mammal species have contracted the disease, such as bobcats, alpacas, red foxes, raccoons, bears, and house cats and dogs. However, since rodents are efficient carriers of the H5N1 virus, the virus is now literally closer to home thanks to the presence of house mice.

Senior scholar Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security states, “When you have a bird flu virus infecting mammal species, that raises the question of the virus becoming more adaptive for mammalian transmission.”. When bird flu viruses infect mammals, they encounter specific obstacles related to the receptors that the viruses bind to. The stakes have increased as a result. “.

One of the unknowns is whether or not humans are eventually involved in that spread on a large scale. Of the three individuals who have received a diagnosis in the U. S. The first person from the current outbreak to show mild upper respiratory symptoms since April was a farm worker in Michigan.

Experts in medicine are concerned about the respiratory component because an individual with the H5N1 virus in their respiratory tract may cough up the virus and infect others. The CDC reports that there is currently little health risk to the general public due to the lack of evidence of H5N1 virus transmission from person to person. However, as Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Nirav Shah pointed out in May at a Council on Foreign Relations gathering, “The risk here is not insignificant of something going from one or two sporadic [human] cases to becoming something of international concern.”. “.

Among the more than 900 confirmed cases globally since the H5N1 virus was first discovered in the late 1990s, more than 50% of human deaths have been attributed to the virus, despite the fact that infections in the three people infected with the current strain have been low. And this H5N1 strain has given animals some concerning side effects.

Two felines’ brains and lungs tested revealed “high amounts of virus,” and cats on a Texas farm perished after consuming raw milk from bird flu-infected cows. The observation of significant involvement of multiple organs, including the brain and major organs, has been observed to be the cause of death for numerous animal species, which is quite intriguing. And we still don’t fully comprehend that,” adds Osterholm.

Although the USDA claims that most dairy cows recover from their infections, Reuters recently revealed that five states have had dairy cows killed or dying because they were unable to recover. Ironically, one reason farmers might be hesitant to test their cows is that raising cows is far more expensive than raising chickens or turkeys, so should infection among cattle become more widespread, the potential cost to American farms would be enormous.

The current state of dairy cattle is “just another situation where the potential for that virus to change is, I think, definitely increased,” according to Osterholm. He points out that the rise in severe illness among many of the H5N1-infected species is worrisome, in part because it’s unclear why exactly that has happened. “If you look at genetic sequences and consider the damage the virus has caused, it is impossible to attribute this to a single mutation. “.

“We’re just spreading it naively and sort of letting it go.”.

Recently, the CDC verified that the H5N1 virus, which was isolated from a Texas human infection, is lethal when it infects ferrets in an experiment. According to Bright, the scientists discovered evidence that the virus had infected various internal organs, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys, as well as the brain and blood, after all of those ferrets perished. The results highlight the possibility of major illness in humans, according to the CDC.

Tests should be conducted with more urgency, according to Osterholm and others. This is a complex request that involves testing farm animals, laborers, and those in close proximity more frequently. It also involves testing milk supplies and any meat intended for human or animal consumption on an ongoing basis in the case of dairy herds.

In order to rule out the possibility of contamination from the disposal of contaminated milk, it is crucial to test the farm environment, which includes machinery, transport vehicles, milking machines, and water systems. A non-peer reviewed study discovered that the amount of viral particles in raw milk from cows infected with bird flu was astonishing. Our commercial supply of pasteurized milk is still safe to consume, according to the FDA. ( ).

In order to develop more effective containment strategies, researchers may be able to better understand the true extent of H5N1’s spread with the aid of serology testing, which Bright claims has been virtually nonexistent. However, in the U. s. where the effort is not being coordinated by a single government agency or body, the outcome has been uneven and patchy.

Bright declares, “We’re not stopping it.”. “No action is being taken to maintain that infectious and contaminated milk on the farm. In a very naive way, we’re just sort of letting it go and spreading it without testing these cows before sending them to slaughter or back onto the milking line. “.

It seems like there are issues at every turn. The majority of testing is done voluntarily unless there is a federal requirement. A USDA spokesman informed me that in addition to offering options for voluntary testing and monitoring, the agency also runs a program that pays dairy producers for sample collection. However, Bright notes that “we are finding that many farms are reluctant to test out of fear of being shut down or suffering a sizable financial loss for which they are not yet receiving reimbursement from federal programs.”. “.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises workers who come into contact with raw milk, animals that may be contaminated, etc. use personal protective equipment (PPE), but testing should only be done on those who exhibit symptoms similar to the flu (again, voluntarily). Additionally, the majority of farmers would rather collaborate with their local, state, and county health departments before inviting federal health inspectors to visit their property. Just 45 persons had been tested nationwide since March, according to a June 7 CDC report.

According to Adalja, all farms would have access to rapid flu testing through a proactive testing and surveillance program. There are currently no specific H5N1 tests available. He continues, “We would be testing cows everywhere at random, not just those that looked sick or those that are transported from one state to another.”. To find contaminated cows who might not exhibit obvious symptoms of infection, experts have also recommended pooling testing of milk from multiple cows on each farm.

Rapid data sharing from cases involving infected humans and animals is essential as well, according to experts. According to Bright, “the USDA is not providing the sequence data from the cows and the animals in a timely manner.”. “During the previous eight weeks, they have not shared a sequence that they obtained from any infected animal.”. Furthermore, Bright notes that although the agency occasionally contributes virus sequences to a global database, the majority of the information shared comes from animals that were ill in March and the first few days of April.

With their strategic national stockpile, federal officials say they will have millions of vaccine doses at their disposal in case they are needed. An organization that the U.S. s. About 41.8 million doses of a pre-pandemic vaccine “that is well matched to the H5 of the currently circulating H5N1 strain” will be filled, the government’s CSL Seqirus confirmed. “.

The director of the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy at the White House, Paul Friedrichs, reports that the federal, state, and local agencies looking into and keeping an eye on this strain of bird flu “have very collegial, collaborative, candid, discussions.”. We always come to a decision and act upon it, even though we don’t always agree—this is to be expected in a complex situation. “.

But for the time being, the researchers are unwavering in their assessment of what’s required: increased monitoring and testing, testing, testing. Regarding H5N1, Rick Bright predicts that it will adapt. We’ve seen it evolve over time among different bird species, and we are aware that influenza viruses are responsible for this. Experts advise that now is the perfect moment to stay ahead of this evolution.

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