Disturbing development as bird flu virus outbreak continues to kill

An Australian virologist has explained how to stop pandemics continuing to impact the globe.

Highly contagious avian influenza is showing signs of adapting to spread from mammal to mammal.

The deadliest outbreak in more than a decade has resulted in the deaths of over 58 million birds in the United States alone since 2022.

While the virus was known to have spread to at least 17 mammal species, researchers initially believed this was from scavenging infected birds. But evidence now suggests it’s spreading between minks at a fur farm in Spain, and possibly among sea lions in Peru where over 700 have died.

Ducks at an intensive farm. Inset - a still of avian influenza.
Avian influenza has resulted in the deaths of thousands of birds across the world. Source: Getty/Reuters

University of NSW virologist Professor Bill Rawlinson told Yahoo News Australia if the H5N1 was to begin spreading between humans the situation could be “very serious” because human mortality from previous outbreaks has been between 40 to 50 per cent.

What he sees as a “counterbalance” to the virus's high death rate is that historically it has not been very transmissible between humans. “Cold viruses transmit really easily, but they're not very lethal. Avian flu viruses are very lethal in humans, but they don't transmit very easily,” he said.

How the world can stop zoonotic viruses

While H5N1 has decimated colonies of wild birds overseas, it has not spread to Australia. Scientists confirmed the deaths of over 700 birds at a Victorian reserve were linked to toxins associated with botulism bacteria.

Last week, Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital, said global unease about the spread of H5N1 is warranted, but it's not time to panic.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has not yet spread to Australia. Source: Getty (File)
The H5N1 strain of bird flu has not yet spread to Australia. Source: Getty (File)

Dr Rawlinson believes that just because the virus is spreading between minks, it doesn’t mean human-to-human infection is the next step. But if this was to occur the mortality rate would probably drop, because when viruses spill over and spread between individuals of a new species, there is usually a drop in its lethality.

Despite zoonotic diseases having inflicted humankind for centuries, Covid-19 initiated renewed interest in them. The pangolin trade has been associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV-1 has been directly linked to the consumption of civet cats and Ebola likely came from the consumption of bush meat.

Wild animals in markets are often severely stressed, impacting their immune systems, and are in close contact with domestic species and humans.

“You’ve got to stop eating wild animals and interacting with them in a way that allows the spread of zoonotic viruses from a wild animal into domestic animals and then into humans,” he said. “Somebody has just got to say it.”

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