'Frightening' truth about bird flu 'a real concern' for Aussies: 'The next pandemic'

For three weeks the virus had only spread among egg laying chickens, but now it's spreading across different species.

A chicken is seen at a poultry farm, beside an image of a man holding a chicken in a hazmat, amid the spread of bird flu.
A total of six farms have now reported bird flu infections in Australia. Source: NCA Newswire / Getty

After it emerged that the deadly avian flu jumped species in Australia and has now spread to a duck farm, a leading food safety expert said it's possible the virus will continue to evolve and eventually transmit among pigs — "the next step towards a human infection."

For three weeks bird flu virus had only spread among egg-laying chickens, but on Thursday evening authorities confirmed it had spread to ducks, with the highly contagious H7N3 strain now detected at a total of six properties across the country, all in Victoria. The virus's emergence, which can cause illness and death in poultry, has seen hundreds of thousands of birds killed as a precautionary measure.

Professor Enzo Palombo, food health and safety expert at Swinburne University, said "there's no need to panic" and "no real sense that anything significant is happening locally which we should be concerned about" for now. But, there is growing evidence to suggest the virus "could come across to humans more readily and cause problems", which "could end up being the start of the next pandemic".

He said "the real concern from a public health point of view" will be if "what's happening in the US with mammals" occurs on home soil.

Animal advocates have called for industrial poultry farming practices to be reformed to help stop strains of avian flu from mutating. Source: Getty
Animal advocates have called for industrial poultry farming practices to be reformed to help stop strains of avian flu from mutating. Source: Getty

"I don't believe it constitutes a major public health threat here yet, but I think what's most concerning is what's happening in the US with the dairy cattle, there have been documented transmissions from cattle to humans, most likely through milk," he said.

"The virus seems to be infecting the udders and it seems to be shared through milk, which tests showed had live virus in it."

If the virus moves from cows to infect pig populations, ", Palombo said, with "that scenario being much more frightening than any potential spread through food".

"Pigs are notoriously the animals in which all these flu viruses tend to mix up and come out as new versions," he said. "It's concerning because the bird flu virus doesn't grow well in humans, but it does in pigs, so the pigs becoming this melting pot of different viruses".

The virus has now reached most corners of the earth — even among penguins in Antarctica — which Palombo said was a result of migratory birds. He warned that recent experiments proved that bird flu strains were able to infect ferrets, which could prove troublesome in future for humans.

"You're probably thinking why does that matter? Well, ferrets are a model used in laboratories to mimic human infection. Now, if it can infect and make a ferret sick, and they mostly died in that experiment, that means it could come across to humans more readily and cause problems.

"So all these things sort of have people starting to think, hang on something's ticking over here and it could end up being the next pandemic. We don't want to alarm people. But this is how it happens with these viruses. They don't follow any rules, they do what they want to do."

Asked what the likelihood is of the virus spreading to any kind of dangerous level in Australia, Palombo said "minimal" but not impossible.

"Well, if you asked me that question about COVID in March 2020 I'd have said minimal risk then too, but then look what happened? We just don't know. It could be the next pandemic, it could all blow over and we go back to normal."

The spread has so far impacted the supply of eggs in Australia, with Coles supermarkets announcing a temporary limit of two cartons per customer nationwide, except in WA. The strain impacting Victoria is a different variant to H5N1 which has spread to at least 48 wild and domestic mammal species as well as poultry and migratory birds.

While the current outbreak of H7N3 has so far been restricted to poultry, when it comes to H5N1, there have also been rare cases in humans. In March a boy returning to Australia from India was discovered to be infected.

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