'Tip of the iceberg': World's first 'human infection' of bird flu strain reported

Tom Flanagan and AFP
·4-min read

Russia has reported the world's first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of avian flu from birds to humans.

The World Health Organisation has been alerted as health teams look to react quickly in a bid to prevent mutations.

In televised remarks, the head of Russia's health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, Anna Popova, said scientists at the Vektor laboratory had isolated the strain's genetic material from seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia.

The farm was responsible for an outbreak among the birds in December.

The workers did not suffer any serious health consequences and believed to have caught the virus from poultry on the farm.

"Information about the world's first case of transmission of the avian flu (H5N8) to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organisation," Ms Popova said.

Chickens inside a poultry farm in Morigaon District of Assam, India, after an avian flu outbreak of the H5N8 strain.
Chickens inside a poultry farm in India following an outbreak of the H5N8 strain in January. Source: Getty Images

There are different subtypes of avian influenza viruses.

While the highly contagious strain H5N8 is lethal for birds, it had never before been reported to have spread to humans.

Ms Popova praised "the important scientific discovery", saying "time will tell" if the virus can further mutate.

"The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion," she said.

The WHO confirmed on Saturday (local time) it had been notified by Russia about the development.

"We are in discussion with national authorities to gather more information and assess the public health impact of this event," a spokesperson said.

"If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 infects people."

WHO stressed the Russian workers were "asymptomatic" and no onward human-to-human transmission had been reported.

People can get infected with avian and swine influenza viruses, such as bird flu subtypes A(H5N1) and A(H7N9) and swine flu subtypes such as A(H1N1).

According to the WHO, people usually get infected through direct contact with animals or contaminated environments, and there is no sustained transmission among humans.

H5N1 in people can cause severe illness and has a 60 per cent mortality rate.

In France, a group of men are seen catching ducks and putting them in cages amid concerns over the H5N8 virus.
Men catch ducks for putting them in cages before being culled elsewhere in France amid concerns over a new epizootic disease caused by the H5N8 virus in January. Source: Getty Images

Russian cases could be 'tip of the iceberg'

Gwenael Vourc'h, head of research at France's National Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Environment, said influenza viruses were known to evolve "quite quickly" and there might have been other cases besides those reported in Russia.

"This is probably the tip of the iceberg," she told AFP.

Francois Renaud, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said however he was "not particularly worried" at this stage.

He added the coronavirus pandemic had taught countries to react quickly to potential health threats.

"Draconian measures will be taken to immediately stop the outbreak," he said.

Avian flu has raged in several European countries including France, where hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled to stop the infection.

Russia's Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center, which detected the transmission to the poultry farm workers, also developed one of the country's several coronavirus vaccines.

In the Soviet era the lab, located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, conducted secret biological weapons research.

It still stockpiles viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.

In televised remarks, Vektor chief Rinat Maksyutov said the lab was ready to begin developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and to begin work on a vaccine.

The Soviet Union was a scientific powerhouse and Russia has sought to reclaim a leadership role in vaccine research under President Vladimir Putin.

Russia registered coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V in August, months before Western competitors and even before large-scale clinical trials.

After initial scepticism in the West, the Lancet journal this month published results showing the Russian vaccine — named after the Soviet-era satellite — to be safe and effective.

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