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Burgeoning Concern: H5N1 Virus Sparks Global Pandemic Fears Among Scientists

Visual Representation for global pandemic | Credits: Reuters

United States: In 1996, the emergence of bird flu, also known as the H5N1 virus, commenced. Since its inception, sporadic cases of avian flu in humans have occurred. Moreover, it has progressively infiltrated various species – from raccoons and foxes to seals and sea lions, and most recently, dairy cattle in the United States. 

From January 1st, 2003, to December 21st, 2023, there were 882 documented cases of human contraction with the H5N1 virus across 23 nations, with a mortality rate of 52 percent, according to the Irish Times. 

Doesn’t this scenario raise the specter of it potentially sparking the next global pandemic?

An editorial featured in this month’s Lancet Infectious Diseases seems to think so and offers a stark warning, “The expanding range of hosts for the virus, the possibility of transmission among mammals and between mammals and humans, its extensive geographic distribution, and the unprecedented magnitude of avian outbreaks all raise concerns regarding the pandemic potential of H5N1.” 

Furthermore, a recent global survey involving prominent scientists revealed that approximately 57 percent of experts in disease now believe that a strain of influenza will be the catalyst for the subsequent global epidemic post-COVID-19. This assertion stems from extensive research indicating that influenza remains a perpetual threat due to its continual evolution and mutation, elucidated Jon Salmanton-García from the University of Cologne.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also voiced apprehension. Last month, it expressed alarm over the rapid dissemination of the H5N1 influenza strain, which has resulted in millions of avian flu cases worldwide. The variant H5N1 has metamorphosed into “a worldwide zoonotic animal pandemic,” articulated Jeremy Farrar, the chief scientist at the UN health agency, during a press briefing in Geneva. 

Farrar further mentioned, “The primary concern lies in its transmission from ducks and chickens to other mammals, eventually including humans, and its subsequent adaptation for human-to-human transmission,” according to the Irish Times. 

Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, adopted a more cautious stance. “No one is asserting that H5N1 will be the next pandemic. It is difficult to make such predictions. However, it is disquieting when a virus begins to infect multiple mammalian species, indicating adaptation to creatures more akin to humans than birds, thereby warranting heightened vigilance.”

What particular aspect of the virus has scientists on edge? 

Evidence suggested that the virus likely transitioned from avians to bovines as early as late 2023, spreading stealthily among cattle for months prior to the first reported cases in March. It has even been detected in unpasteurized bovine milk. An examination of a recent case involving a cattle handler infected in Texas outlined the individual’s close interaction with H5N1-infected dairy cattle, resulting in ocular inflammation and ruptured blood vessels. Notably, the virus identified in the handler’s sample exhibited genetic alterations associated with adaptation to mammalian hosts.

However, there are no indications yet of an adaptation that would facilitate enhanced binding to human-specific receptors in the upper respiratory tract, which would confer easy transmission between individuals. Nonetheless, the wider the spread of a virus, the greater the likelihood of mutations enabling human infection.

Are there existing vaccines against H5N1? And should the production of these vaccines be escalated?

Indeed, there are two formulations of H5N1 vaccines available that could be deployed during a pandemic. These formulations are well-matched to the current strain circulating among dairy cattle.

Nonetheless, there is presently no imperative to commence mass production of these vaccines, asserted Dr Ryan from the WHO. Scaling up production for pandemic vaccines would necessitate diverting resources from the manufacture of annual vaccines for seasonal influenza strains.

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