The Impacts of H5N1 Avian Influenza
You may be asking, “Why are eggs so expensive?” Avian influenza H5N1 – commonly referred to as “bird flu” – has been infecting bird populations around the world for decades. Most strains of this virus have been low pathogenic, which don’t spread easily and have low mortality in these populations, so caused few signs of disease among birds. The current strain is different and having a much greater impact. To learn more and answer the question “Why are eggs so expensive?,” we spoke with our Dr. Gene Olinger, Chief Science Advisor.
What makes this virus different from past strains?
This current strain is what’s called “highly pathogenic,” so can be more contagious and more deadly to infected birds. Interestingly, wild bird cases are usually asymptomatic, so when there is a wild bird that has died from the virus, it is likely too late to control. Scientists have been calling for greater attention on H5N1 and its potential impacts for years, with the goal of avoiding this situation.
Why is it impacting wild bird populations and farmed poultry too?
Though it has likely been spreading among wild populations for a few years, causing greater mortality in those populations than past strains of the virus, it was first detected in poultry on a commercial turkey farm in Feb. 2022. Farmed poultry populations, including chickens and turkeys, may live in an outdoor enclosure or one that is open to ventilation from the outside. When they come into contact with an infected wild bird, the virus can spread to them, which can then impact the entire flock.
Then why are eggs so expensive?
When a flock of laying hens is impacted by the virus, the mortality rate is near 100 percent and the flock either dies or must be culled in an attempt to keep the virus from spreading to other flocks. This has had a disastrous impact on poultry populations around the world, with U.S.-based outbreaks in 47 states and more than 58 million birds affected. This has resulted in a shortage of available laying hens, prompting egg prices to spike, answering the question “Why are eggs so expensive?”
What work has MRIGlobal done on H5N1?
In the past, our researchers have been involved with research on vaccines for chickens, which may help keep these birds free from disease. We have tested them for viability, safety, and protection of these birds and flocks. We have played a role in testing the efficacy of both animal and human disease diagnostics for use in the field, while also being involved in development of therapeutics and vaccines for humans.
In addition, our experts have managed U.S. government-funded cooperative biological research projects that included avian influenza surveillance overseas. As a result, we understand and appreciate the One Health approach, the importance of biosafety and biosecurity, and the global network of experts.
Is the virus spreading beyond poultry to other animals?
The virus has spread to several other animal populations around the world, including wild sea lions, farmed mink, and other mammals. This “spillover” potential is concerning to researchers because when a virus infects another species, it adapts to that species and can pick up new genetics, potentially producing a new virus that is more infectious to humans. This increases the likelihood of infecting human populations that come into contact with animals infected with the virus. It is understood that the 1918 flu pandemic started this way on a farm in Kansas, with poultry and pigs sharing influenza genetics and then making the jump to humans.
Does this high pathogenic H5N1 virus have pandemic potential?
For years, there has been concern that this virus could jump from birds to humans. If it does and we find that it spreads easily from human to human, there’s potential that COVID-19 looks tame in comparison. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently commented that the virus must “monitored closely,” as the “organization’s experts called on public health officials to prepare for human outbreaks of the disease.”
Further, “The recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general. But “for the moment, WHO assesses the risk to humans as low.”
Is there anything more that researchers can do to help stop its spread?
A worldwide network of researchers and epidemiologists are monitoring the spread of the virus and changes in the influenza viruses circulating within wildlife and domesticated animals. Understanding the genetics of circulating viruses enables scientist to develop better vaccines and therapeutics. Vaccination of domesticated flocks and swine may be a next step for worldwide protection of our food supply. Further, new diagnostic tools are being developed with a focus on rapid diagnostics for wildlife and humans. Finally, scientists continue to focus on how the virus spreads in wildlife and understanding critical spillover events that lead to infections in mammals and human-to-human transmission.
GETTING STARTED AT MRIGLOBAL
Contact MRIGlobal to further understand our work in infectious diseases. We offer a broad portfolio of infectious disease testing assays and capabilities across diagnostic disciplines, from screening and diagnosis to genotyping, therapy, and monitoring. Those seeking analysis of infectious disease tests can trust in our breadth of experience and knowledge – not just on the subject matter, but FDA protocols as well.
To learn more about the work we’ve done or how we can help you, contact us today. If you are part of an agency, business, or academic institution seeking assistance with a project, use our Project Quote Tool to get started.
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