Next Global Pandemic Looming as Infectious Bird Virus Spreads to Mammals

The next global pandemic after COVID-19 could already be in the making.

The so-called bird or avian flu – also known as the H5N1 virus – mutated to infect mammals, the World Health Organization warned. Experts are noting while it doesn’t yet affect humans, that could transpire soon.

Un(fore)seen Development

In the past few weeks, the bird flu virus has been found in foxes, otters, minks, and seals, among other mammals, leading the WHO to issue a warning that it may soon mutate to infect humans.

Speaking in a digital news conference on Wednesday, Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, urged nations worldwide to monitor the avian flu virus to identify mammal outbreaks early.

Ghebreyesus did note that, at the moment, the UN body considers the bird flu risk to humans to be “low.”

The H5N1 avian flu virus was first discovered in Communist China back in 1996. A new variant of the avian flu virus appeared in 2021, while the most recent previous outbreak on American poultry farms was in February 2022, a year ago.

This time, however, the scope and number of species infected by the new H5N1 virus are truly “unprecedented,” according to virologist Nichola Hill from the University of Massachusetts Boston told ABC News.

The report pointed out that the recent outbreak has been the deadliest occurrence of bird flu in the history of the United States and affected almost 60 million poultry.

What is even worse, though, is all 50 US states now have wild bird species infected with the flu viruses; it has now been found even in skunks and dolphins, among a large number of other mammal species.

Hill said the avian flu had never been detected in so many “different wild species” to date and a bird flu virus wasn’t really supposed to infect mammals.

Threat to Humans Could Be Only a Matter of Time

“We hadn’t seen that [ever] before,” the virologist commented after it became clear the virus infected an entire mink farm.

What is particularly striking, though, is it didn’t just go from birds to minks but minks started to get infected by one another.

The report stresses that the mammal-to-mammal infection is a matter of concern, but does not necessarily mean the bird flu virus would start to affect humans.

It does note, however, that there have already been rare cases of people getting sick with bird flu. Yet, those have been people working “closely with birds.”

One American man got infected in the current outbreak, but he was in charge of culling infected farm birds. The consensus at present is the avian flu virus hasn’t evolved yet in a way to allow it to infect humans more easily.

According to Hill, the virus hasn’t managed to reach a combination of mutations that would bring about “efficient human transmission.”

At the same time, she warns every time the infection adapts to a new host, the chances that it could undergo a mutation threatening to humans is growing. That is why monitoring and containing avian flu in birds and mammals is vital.

The CDC advises that people should stay away from birds, while those working with poultry should wear gloves and masks as precautions.

This article appeared in Mainstpress and has been published here with permission.