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Fresh bird flu pandemic fears as top virologists sound alarm over 'worrying' spread

Fears of a potentially devastating avian flu pandemic were heightened today after a “worrying” outbreak among mink.

Leading virologists around the world sounded the alarm after tests confirmed that the H5N1 strain was spreading among mammals.

This raises the prospect that the pathogen could pick up troublesome mutations that allow it to spread much more easily between humans, helping it to clean up the biggest obstacle that stopped him from sweeping the world.

A virus tracking scientist has described the H5N1 strain, detected in Spain, as being similar to one purposely designed to better infect humans in controversial ‘gain-of-function’ laboratory experiments.

Leading virologists around the world sounded the alarm after tests confirmed that the H5N1 strain was spreading among minks (pictured).  The outbreak occurred at a farm in Galicia, northwest Spain, in October, which was home to 52,000 of the animals.

Leading virologists around the world sounded the alarm after tests confirmed that the H5N1 strain was spreading among minks (pictured). The outbreak occurred at a farm in Galicia, northwest Spain, in October, which was home to 52,000 of the animals.

Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer in Devon, caught the virus after his ducks, some of which lived inside his home, became infected.  Nobody else got the virus

Alan Gosling (pictured), a retired engineer in Devon, caught the virus after his ducks, some of which lived inside his home, became infected. Nobody else got the virus

Avian flu outbreak: everything you need to know

What is that?

Avian flu is an infectious type of flu that spreads among birds.

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

This includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding. People can also get bird flu if they kill or prepare infected birds for food.

Wild birds are carriers, especially through migration.

As they group together to reproduce, the virus quickly spreads and is carried to other parts of the globe.

New strains tend to appear first in Asia, from where more than 60 species of shorebirds and waterfowl head to Alaska to breed and intermingle with migratory US birds. Others go west and infect European species.

Which strain is currently spreading?

H5N1.

So far, the new virus has been detected in around 80 million poultry and birds worldwide since September 2021 – double the previous record the previous year.

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

Millions of chickens and turkeys in the UK have been culled or put into confinement, affecting the availability of Christmas turkey 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 people was considered ‘low’.

But people are strongly advised not to touch sick or dead birds because the virus is lethal, killing 56% of the people it infects.

Announcement

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

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

Other experts have warned that outbreaks between minks 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 global swine flu crisis of 2009, which infected millions across the planet.

The same biological phenomenon has also been observed during the Covid pandemic, such as the so-called Deltacron – a recombination of Delta and Omicron, first detected 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 recombination – with high levels of human flu strains increasing the risk of a human being co-infected with avian flu as well.

This could see a deadly strain of avian flu merge with a transmissible seasonal flu.

The marten outbreak occurred at a farm in Galicia, in northwest Spain, in October, which was home to 52,000 animals.

It was only detected after a sudden increase in animal deaths. Up to four percent died within a week during the outbreak, which was declared over in mid-November.

Veterinarians at the farm cleaned the minks and the samples were analyzed at a government laboratory, where they tested positive for H5N1.

This led to all animals being slaughtered, farm workers self-isolating for 10 days and increased security measures on farms across the country.

This included wearing disposable masks and coveralls and showering before leaving the venue.

Analysis of the samples taken, which were published yesterday in the infectious disease journal Eurosurveillance, show that the virus has gained nearly a dozen mutations – most of which have never or rarely been seen before in strains of bird flu.

One was previously seen in the virus behind the 2009 global swine flu pandemic.

Scientists investigating the samples believe it was triggered by an outbreak of H5N1 among seabirds in a nearby province.

The UK recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter.  Levels usually drop in spring and summer, but the outbreak has passed the usual endpoint.  Nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among poultry in England since the current outbreak began in October 2021. However, the real number is believed to be much higher

The UK recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels usually drop in spring and summer, but the outbreak has passed the usual endpoint. Nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among poultry in England since the current outbreak began in October 2021. However, the real number is believed to be much higher

The report, drawn up by experts from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, along with some from the Council for Rural Affairs, states that this is the first time that H5N1 has spread among martens in Europe.

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

Greater biosecurity measures on mink farms and heightened surveillance are needed to limit any risk of transmission to people, the report warned.

Professor François Balloux, an infectious disease expert at University College London, said: “The sequenced genomes carry a number of rare or previously unreported mutations, likely acquired after mink-to-mink transmission.

‘AH5N1 avian influenza can infect a variety of carnivores and sometimes also humans. Small clusters in humans have been reported, but human-to-human transmission remains ineffective.

‘These avian flu outbreaks on mink farms are highly suboptimal as they create natural “passage experiments” in a mammalian host, which may lead to the virus developing greater transmissibility in mammals.’

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.

“However, the fact that H5N1 can successfully adapt to mammalian transmission is generally concerning,” 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 that involved tweaking H5N1 so that it could better infect ferrets.

The results sparked controversy among the scientific community and security agencies over concerns that they could be used to create a biological weapon.

The findings showed that a version that can infect mammals could be achieved with just a few tweaks to the virus.

The US National Scientific Advisory Board on Biosafety asked 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 that the experiments could trigger an outbreak if the virus accidentally leaks from a lab, which is how some scientists believe the Covid pandemic started.

The UK recorded a record number of bird flu cases last winter. Levels usually drop in spring and summer, but the outbreak has passed the usual endpoint.

Nearly 300 confirmed cases of H5N1 have been detected among poultry in England since the current outbreak began in October 2021. However, the real number is believed to be much higher.

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

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

The virus struggles to attach itself to human cells, unlike the seasonal flu, scientists say. As a result, it is usually unable to penetrate them and cause an infection.

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