New bird flu pandemic fears as top virologists sound alarm about ‘worrying’ spread

Fears of a potentially devastating avian flu pandemic intensified today after a ‘worrying’ outbreak among minks.

Top virologists from around the world have sounded the alarm after tests confirmed the H5N1 strain was spreading between mammals.

It raises the prospect that the pathogen could get tricky mutations that make it much easier to spread between people, clearing it up the biggest hurdle that has kept it from conquering the world.

A virus-tracking scientist described the H5N1 strain, detected in Spain, as similar to a strain purposely designed to better infect humans in controversial “gain-of-function” lab experiments.

Top virologists from around the world have sounded the alarm after tests confirmed the H5N1 strain was spreading between minks (pictured).  The outbreak occurred on a farm in Galicia, northwestern Spain, in October, which housed 52,000 animals

Top virologists from around the world have sounded the alarm after tests confirmed the H5N1 strain was spreading between minks (pictured). The outbreak occurred on a farm in Galicia, northwestern Spain, in October, which housed 52,000 animals

Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer in Devon, contracted the virus after his ducks, some of which lived in his home, became infected.  No one else has contracted the virus

Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer in Devon, contracted the virus after his ducks, some of which lived in his home, became infected. No one else has contracted the virus

Bird flu outbreak: everything you need to know

What is it?

Bird flu is a contagious form of flu that spreads among birds.

In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with a dead or live infected bird.

This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. Humans can also get bird flu if they kill or prepare infected poultry to eat.

Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.

As they clump together to reproduce, the virus quickly spreads and is then carried to other parts of the world.

New species usually appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shorebirds, waders and waterfowl migrate to Alaska to mingle with migratory birds from the US. Others go west and infect European species.

Which species is currently spreading?

H5N1.

So far, as of September 2021, the new virus has been detected in some 80 million birds and poultry worldwide – double the previous record set the year before.

Not only is the virus spreading rapidly, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say it is the deadliest strain yet.

Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK have been culled or quarantined, affecting the availability of Christmas turkey and free-range eggs.

Can it infect humans?

Yes, but only 860 human cases have been reported to the World Health Organization since 2003.

The risk to humans is estimated to be ‘low’.

But people are urged not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is deadly, killing 56 percent of people it manages to infect.

Professor Rupert Beale, an immunology expert at the world-renowned Francis Crick Institute in London, said: ‘We should already have contingency plans for vaccines.’

And Professor Isabella Eckerle, a virologist at the University of Geneva’s Center for Emerging Viral Diseases, called the findings “really worrisome.”

Other experts warned that outbreaks among minks could lead to a recombination event — when two viruses swap genetic material to make a new hybrid.

A similar process is believed to have caused the 2009 global swine flu crisis that infected millions across the planet.

The same biological phenomenon was also seen during the Covid pandemic, such as the so-called Deltacron – a recombination of Delta and Omicron, first discovered in France last February.

For decades, scientists have been warning that bird flu is the most likely contender to cause the next pandemic.

Experts say this is because of the threat of recombination – with high levels of human flu strains increasing the risk of a human also becoming infected with avian flu.

This could allow a deadly form of avian flu to merge with a transmissible seasonal flu.

The mink outbreak occurred in October on a farm in Galicia, northwestern Spain, which housed 52,000 animals.

It was only noticed after a sudden spate of dying animals. Up to four percent died in one week during the outbreak, which ended in mid-November.

Farm vets swabbed the minks and the samples were analyzed at a government lab, where they tested positive for H5N1.

It led to all animals being culled, farm workers going into isolation for 10 days and increased security measures on farms across the country.

These include wearing face masks and disposable coveralls and showering before leaving the premises.

Analysis of samples taken, published yesterday in the infectious disease journal Eurosurveillance, showed the virus had acquired nearly a dozen mutations – most of which had never or rarely been seen before in avian flu strains.

One had previously been seen on the virus behind the global swine flu pandemic in 2009.

Scientists examining the samples believe it was caused by an H5N1 outbreak among seabirds in a nearby province.

The United Kingdom recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter.  Levels usually fall in the spring and summer, but the outbreak rumbled past its usual end point.  Since the start of the current outbreak in October 2021, nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among birds in England.  However, the actual number is believed to be much higher

The United Kingdom recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels usually fall in the spring and summer, but the outbreak rumbled past its usual end point. Since the start of the current outbreak in October 2021, nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among birds in England. However, the actual number is believed to be much higher

The report, from experts from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, along with some from the Rural Affairs Council, says this is the first time H5N1 has spread among minks in Europe.

They warned that mink could act as a “potential mixing vessel” for H5N1 transmission between birds, mammals and humans – for example, by recombining the strain with human flu viruses, which can infect humans.

Increased biosecurity measures on mink farms and more surveillance are needed to mitigate any risk of transmission to humans, the report warned.

Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert at University College London, said: ‘The sequenced genomes contain several rare or previously unreported mutations, likely acquired after mink-to-mink transmission.

The bird flu AH5N1 can infect a range of carnivores and sometimes humans. Small clusters in humans have been reported, but human-to-human transmission remains ineffective.

“Such bird flu outbreaks in mink farms are highly suboptimal because they create natural “passage experiments” in a mammalian host, which could lead the virus to develop higher transmissibility in mammals.”

Dr. Jeremy Ratcliff, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said there is no need to panic about the outbreak because it ended two months ago.

“But that H5N1 can successfully adapt to mammalian-to-mammalian transmission is of general concern,” he added.

Other virologists warned online that the mutated version of H5N1 was similar to one made in a lab to better infect mammals.

They pointed to a controversial experiment by Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier in which H5N1 was modified to better infect ferrets.

The results sparked controversy among the scientific community and security authorities over concerns they could be used to create a bioweapon.

Findings showed that a version that could infect mammals could be achieved with just a few modifications to the virus.

The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity requested that some parts of the findings not be published, but eventually allowed the findings to be published in the journals Nature and Science.

Proponents of these so-called “gain of function” tests claim they can help prepare for a pandemic by revealing how viruses can mutate, allowing scientists to develop drugs and vaccines that work against them.

But critics argue the experiments could trigger an outbreak if the virus accidentally leaked from a lab, which is how some scientists believe the Covid pandemic may have started.

The United Kingdom recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels usually fall in the spring and summer, but the outbreak rumbled past its usual end point.

Since the start of the current outbreak in October 2021, nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among birds in England. However, the actual number is thought to be much higher.

A year ago, the UK registered its first case of H5N1 in a person.

Alan Gosling, a retired engineer in Devon, contracted the virus after his ducks, some of which lived in his home, became infected. No one else has contracted the virus.

The virus struggles to take hold of human cells, unlike seasonal flu, scientists say. As a result, it is usually unable to enter them and cause infection.

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