Avian flu: Will this be the next pandemic to threaten humanity?

Avian flu: Will this be the next pandemic to threaten humanity?

As soon as the coronavirus pandemic ended, the great debate began about what the next threat to humanity might be.

In recent days, expert estimates have multiplied that the harm could come from avian flu. Data collected from various countries around the world confirms the above, with scientists warning that since the tools to deal with it exist, due to Covid-19 fatigue and political obstruction, one should not take to new people off guard.

As the Guardian writes, last month a domestic dog in Canada died of the H5N1 virus, also known as bird flu, after eating a wild goose. However, since November, the related incidents have been numerous and their increase is extremely worrying. In January and February, more than 3,000 sea lions died of bird flu in Peru (where the total number of wild bird deaths is estimated at 50,000).

The disturbing facts

In Russia, 700 Caspian seals and several dolphins in Britain and the United States have also died from the H5N1 virus. Normally, even if an animal catches H5N1 from a bird, it cannot transmit it to other mammals. This limits its spread. However, the large number of cases in these outbreaks suggests the possibility of mammal-to-mammal transmission, although this has yet to be confirmed by genetic sequencing. A more likely hypothesis is that these outbreaks involve groups of animals feeding on infected birds. It’s still not 100% clear what’s going on.

But the risk of spread between mammals is always present. New Canadian research, not yet published in full, has shown that H5N1 samples can spread effectively among ferrets with lethal results. But to spread effectively to humans, H5 would need three broad categories of genetic changes, according to avian flu expert Professor Richard Webby.

So far, the virus has managed to make one of these changes, but not the other two. Therefore, at present, H5N1 is a theoretical risk for the next human pandemic, rather than a threat that must be addressed immediately. From this point of view, a Prime Minister or a Minister of Health is the easiest to say, “why prepare for something that may never happen?”.

What are the scientists saying?

But for global health scientists, the signs are plentiful and action needs to be agreed and started quickly. That way, if a particular set of mutations occur and we see an outbreak in humans in Peru, China or Britain, the damage that will be done will be minimal. It is a disease whose mortality rate is estimated at 50-60% in humans, including children.

The cornerstones of infectious disease preparedness are: 1) surveillance (to know which strain is spreading and where in birds) 2) testing (to detect disease early in humans) 3) vaccines (to protect against disease and death) and antivirals (to improve clinical outcomes).

The US government is already moving in this direction. Rebecca Katz, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, noted that an H5 vaccine candidate recently produced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is likely to provide good protection against circulating H5N1 viruses.

Vaccines and problems

This information has been shared with vaccine manufacturers to begin the process of stockpiling sufficient doses. But that’s a challenge because most flu vaccines are created by incubating doses in chicken eggs. If bird flu has killed a lot of chickens, then a shortage of their eggs is likely.

There is another H5N1 vaccine that is not egg-based, but it takes six months to manufacture 150 million doses. It should be noted that the world population is almost 8 billion people. Additionally, antiviral treatments approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for seasonal flu may also work against avian flu. However, again getting doses to all parts of the world is a big challenge due to shortages.

All of the above can be solved with careful planning, cooperation between countries, scientific ingenuity and good leadership. With Covid-19 fatigue visible all around us, the biggest problem is to inform the public in time and correctly in order to regain any lost confidence in scientists and global leadership to avoid the dreaded scenario of a worse pandemic than the previous one, another endless nightmare.

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