The increased outbreaks of the H5N8 bird flu strain across several countries are a threat to global public health, warn scientists.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the global implementation of public health measures such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Therefore, resulting in lower cases of the seasonal flu. However, it seems another deadly flu virus might be on the horizon, the H5N8. The highly pathogenic H5N8 bird flu strain has caused the culling of millions of poultries around the world. Although it commonly affects poultry and wild birds, recently outbreaks have also occurred among humans.
In February 2021, Russia reported the first human cases of H5N8. Russian health authorities announced seven cases among poultry farmworkers. All of whom remained asymptomatic. Although there was no indication of human-to-human transmission, Russia’s public health chief Anna Popova warned of a possibility of such an event.
Since then, several countries have reported outbreaks of the highly pathogenic strain. These include Denmark, the UK, South Korea, Israel, China, South Africa, India, and more. A recent paper in Science suggests that this can likely result in a disastrous pandemic if caution is not taken.
A Public Health Concern
The H5Ny subtypes – H5N1, H5N2, H1N5, H1N6, and H5N8 – of the Influenza A virus are extremely lethal to farmed poultry. Their ability to cross species and constantly mutate means they have pandemic potential. Moreover, clade 2.3.4 of the H5N8 subtype has become a dominant pathogen across the globe. These viruses have greater cell-bindings adaptations that allow for greater human transmission. Therefore, increasing the risk of human-to-human transmission.
Furthermore, the migratory pattern of birds increases the risk of a global spread. Therefore, researchers Weifeng Shi and George F. Gao believe all these factors increase the risk to global health. They call for further evaluation of the H5N8 strain’s pathogenicity and transmissibility. Along with increased surveillance of these poultry farms.
Shi, W., & Gao, G. F. (2021). Emerging H5N8 avian influenza viruses. Science, 372(6544), 784–786. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg6302