Fears of a potentially devastating bird flu pandemic were raised today after a “worrying” outbreak among mink.
The world’s top virologists have sounded the alarm after tests confirmed that the H5N1 strain was spreading among mammals.
It raises the possibility that the pathogen could acquire problematic mutations that allow it to spread much more easily between humans, helping it eliminate the biggest obstacle that has prevented him from sweeping the world.
A virus-tracking scientist described the H5N1 strain, detected in Spain, as similar to one purposely engineered to better infect humans in controversial “gain-of-function” laboratory experiments.
The world’s top virologists have sounded the alarm after tests confirmed that the H5N1 strain was spreading among mink (pictured). The outbreak occurred in October on a farm in Galicia, northwestern Spain, which was home to 52,000 of the animals.
Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer from Devon, contracted the virus after his ducks, some of which lived inside his house, became infected. No one else contracted the virus.
Bird flu outbreak: everything you need to know
Bird flu is an infectious type of influenza that spreads among birds.
In rare cases, it can be transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected live or dead bird.
This includes touching infected birds, their droppings, or bedding. People can also get bird flu if they kill or prepare infected birds to eat.
Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.
As they cluster to reproduce, the virus spreads rapidly, then is carried to other parts of the world.
New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl make their way to Alaska to breed and mix with migratory birds in the US. Others go west and infect species European.
What strain is currently spreading?
So far, the new virus has been detected in some 80 million birds and poultry worldwide since September 2021, double the previous record from the previous year.
The virus is not only spreading rapidly, it is also killing at an unprecedented level, leading some experts to say that this is the deadliest variant yet.
Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK have been culled or penned up, affecting the availability of Christmas turkeys and free-range eggs.
Can it infect people?
Yes, but only 860 human cases have been reported to the World Health Organization since 2003.
The risk to humans has been considered “low”.
But people are strongly advised not to handle sick or dead birds because the virus is deadly, killing 56 percent of the people it infects.
Professor Rupert Beale, an immunology expert at the world-renowned Francis Crick Institute in London, said: “We should have vaccine contingency plans by now.”
And Professor Isabella Eckerle, a virologist at the Center for Emerging Viral Diseases at the University of Geneva, called the findings “really worrying.”
Other experts warned that outbreaks between mink could lead to a recombination event, when two viruses exchange genetic material to form a new hybrid.
A similar process is believed to have caused the 2009 global swine flu crisis that infected millions across the globe.
The same biological phenomenon was also observed during the Covid pandemic, such as the so-called Deltacron, a recombination of Delta and Omicron, detected for the first time in France last February.
For decades, scientists have warned that bird flu is the most likely candidate to trigger the next pandemic.
Experts say this is due to the threat of reassortment, with high levels of human flu strains increasing the risk that a human will also be infected with bird flu.
This could cause a deadly strain of bird 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 detected after a sudden increase in animal deaths. Up to 4 percent died within a week during the course of the outbreak, which was declared over in mid-November.
Veterinarians at the farm took samples from the mink and the samples were tested at a government laboratory, where they tested positive for H5N1.
It led to the culling of all animals, the isolation of farm workers for 10 days, and increased security measures at farms across the country.
These included wearing disposable face masks and coveralls and showering before leaving the premises.
Analysis of the samples taken, which were published yesterday in the journal of infectious diseases. Eurosurveillanceshow that the virus had gained nearly a dozen mutations, most of which have never or rarely been seen before in bird flu strains.
One was previously seen in the virus behind the 2009 global swine flu pandemic.
Scientists analyzing the samples believe it was caused by an H5N1 outbreak among seabirds in a nearby province.
The UK recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels typically drop in the spring and summer, but the outbreak rumbled past its usual end point. Almost 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among birds in England since the current outbreak began in October 2021. However, the true number is believed to be much higher.
The report, prepared by experts from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, together with some from the Ministry of Rural Affairs, states that it is the first time that H5N1 has spread among mink in Europe.
They warned that mink could act as a “potential mixing vessel” for transmission of H5N1 between birds, mammals and humans, for example by reassorting the strain with human flu viruses, which can infect people.
Increased biosecurity measures on mink farms and increased surveillance are needed to limit any risk of transmission to people, the report warned.
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert at University College London, said: “The sequenced genomes contain several previously unreported or rare mutations, likely acquired after mink-to-mink transmission.”
‘The AH5N1 bird flu can infect a variety of carnivores and sometimes humans as well. Small clusters in humans have been reported, but person-to-person transmission remains ineffective.
“These avian influenza outbreaks on mink farms are well suboptimal, as they create natural ‘passage experiments’ in a mammalian host, which could lead the virus to develop greater transmissibility in mammals.”
Dr. Jeremy Ratcliff, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said there’s no need to panic about the outbreak because it ended two months ago.
“However, that H5N1 can successfully adapt to mammal-mammal transmission is of concern overall,” he added.
Other online virologists warned that the mutated version of H5N1 was similar to one made in a lab to better infect mammals.
They pointed to a controversial experiment, conducted by Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier, that involved modifying H5N1 so that it could better infect ferrets.
The results sparked controversy among the scientific community and law enforcement agencies over concerns that they could be used to create a biological weapon.
The findings showed that a version that could infect mammals can be achieved with just a few tweaks to the virus.
The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosafety requested that parts of the findings not be published, but ultimately allowed the findings to be published in the journals Nature and Science.
Proponents of these so-called “gain-of-function” tests claim they can aid pandemic preparedness by revealing how viruses can mutate, allowing scientists to develop drugs and vaccines that work against them.
But critics argue that the experiments could trigger an outbreak if the virus were accidentally leaked from a laboratory, which is how some scientists believe the Covid pandemic started.
The UK recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels typically drop in the spring and summer, but the outbreak rumbled past its usual endpoint.
Nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among birds in England since the current outbreak began in October 2021. However, the actual number is believed to be much higher.
A year ago, the UK recorded its first human case of H5N1.
Alan Gosling, a retired engineer from Devon, contracted the virus after his ducks, some of which lived inside his house, became infected. No one else contracted the virus.
The virus struggles to stick to human cells, unlike the seasonal flu, scientists say. As a result, it is usually unable to penetrate them and cause an infection.