H5N1 Bird Flu: “An Even Deadlier Pandemic Could Soon Be Here”

Zeynep Tufekci on the H5N1 strain of the avian influenza, which is showing some recent signs of spreading in mammals.

Bird flu — known more formally as avian influenza — has long hovered on the horizons of scientists’ fears. This pathogen, especially the H5N1 strain, hasn’t often infected humans, but when it has, 56 percent of those known to have contracted it have died. Its inability to spread easily, if at all, from one person to another has kept it from causing a pandemic.

But things are changing. The virus, which has long caused outbreaks among poultry, is infecting more and more migratory birds, allowing it to spread more widely, even to various mammals, raising the risk that a new variant could spread to and among people.

Alarmingly, it was recently reported that a mutant H5N1 strain was not only infecting minks at a fur farm in Spain but also most likely spreading among them, unprecedented among mammals. Even worse, the mink’s upper respiratory tract is exceptionally well suited to act as a conduit to humans, Thomas Peacock, a virologist who has studied avian influenza, told me.

The three relevant facts here are: 56% of humans who’ve contracted H5N1 have died, there are signs of spreading among mammals, and that particular mammal is “exceptionally well suited” to pass viral infections along to humans. Tufekci, who attempted to sound the alarm relatively early-on about Covid-19, goes on to urge the world to action about H5N1, before it’s too late. Will we act? (No. The answer is no.)

*sigh*

You know, it’s a little shocking to read about a potential solution to the Fermi paradox on a random February Monday, but here we are.

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