Rise in bird flu strains threaten to pose pandemic risk

New cases in China and Russia trigger concerns of ‘spillovers’ to humans

Bubbling beneath the surface of the Covid-19 pandemic is the risk of a global bird flu crisis.

Last week, two leading Chinese scientists warned of the threats posed by a new outbreak in a letter published by the influential Science magazine.

Their concerns about “further spillovers” from poultry and wild birds came after the first human cases of H5N8 were reported in Russia back in February.

Another alarm bell went off on Tuesday when China confirmed the first human infection in the world of the H10N3 strain of bird flu in Jiangsu province.

“The zoonotic potential of avian influenza viruses warrants continuous, vigilant monitoring to avert further spillovers that could result in disastrous pandemics,” Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Shi Weifeng, the dean of public health at Shandong First Medical University, said in Science magazine.

The facts:

  • The first case of human infection of the H10N3 strain was detected in the city of Zhenjiang in the eastern province of Jiangsu province.
  • China’s National Health Commission confirmed the strain was transmitted from poultry.
  • It said the risk of H10N3 spreading on a large scale was very low.
  • There have been 862 confirmed human cases of H5N1 infections, according to the World Health Organization.
  • At least 455 people have died.
  • Cases were reported in 17 countries, WHO data revealed.
  • As for the H5N8 strain, it has been found in at least 46 nations.
  • In February, the WHO announced the first human infections among seven Russian farmworkers.
  • The outbreak had already killed more than 100,000 chickens, the WHO reported.

What was said: “Eurasia and Africa are experiencing a new wave of highly pathogenic H5Ny avian influenza virus outbreaks,” Gao and Shi wrote in Science magazine.

Delve deeper: The H5 variant of influenza A was first identified in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in 1996. At least eight more strains of H5 have been detected since then. Most of them could infect humans.

Microscopic enemy:We need to closely surveil for novel influenza viruses which may spill over from pigs, poultry or horses to infect humans,” Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist from Duke University in the United States, said as reported by the South China Morning Post.

Surveillance key: “I think it’s best to conduct surveillance for five viral families at the human-animal interface,” Gray pointed out.

Stay alert: “Human cases of zoonotic influenza were reported throughout 2020, so it is crucial that countries remain vigilant for the emergence of influenza viruses with pandemic potential,” the WHO said in a statement.

China Factor comment: Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed at least 3.5 million people since the virus first officially surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. More than 171 million have become infected. We can not afford to ignore the lessons from history when it comes to the “highly pathogenic H5Ny avian influenza virus.”