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April 23, 2024 Agency Capture Big Pharma News

Health Conditions

WHO, Media Drum Up Fear of Bird Flu Spreading to Humans

The WHO’s Chief Scientist Jeremy Farrar warned bird flu has an “extremely high” mortality rate for humans and could mutate to pass between humans, despite no record of human-to-human transmission of H5N1.

chicken with mask over nose and hand holding cell phone with WHO logo on it

The World Health Organization (WHO) again sounded the alarm about bird flu last week, warning it has an “extremely high” mortality rate among humans.

The disease, the H5N1 avian influenza virus — also known as “highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A,” and simply as “bird flu” — can pass among some animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, it has never passed from human to human, and there have been extremely rare reports of animal-to-human transmission, the agency said.

Still, WHO Chief Scientist Jeremy Farrar said there is “great concern” that the disease will evolve and develop “the ability to go from human-to-human transmission.”

Reports of bird flu outbreaks date back to the 1880s, according to the CDC. Since 2014, there have been periodic and increasingly alarmist media stories about the virus.

Earlier this month reports again began circulating that bird flu was detected in wild birds, poultry, a variety of mammals including cats and dolphins, and a small number of humans.

News outlets like The New York Times reiterated Farrar’s warnings that the virus is mutating and could begin passing between people, and the Daily Mail warned it could be “100 times worse than COVID.”

Farrar kicked those warnings into high gear during a news conference announcing the WHO’s new definition for airborne pathogens.

“It’s a tragic thing to say, but if I get infected with H5N1 and I die, that’s the end of it,” Farrar said. “If I go around the community and I spread it to somebody else then you start the cycle.”

We have to watch, more than watch, we have to make sure that if H5N1 did come across to humans with human-to-human transmission that we were in a position to immediately respond with access equitably to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics,” he added.

Farrar’s own past research focused on this particular strain of bird flu.

Comments spark calls for bird flu vaccine 

Since Farrar’s comments, headlines like: “The next pandemic threat demands action now,” “Bird Flu Is Infecting More Mammals. What Does That Mean for Us?” “The Evolving Danger of the New Bird Flu, and “U.S. Could Vaccinate a Fifth of Americans in a Bird Flu Emergency” have asked whether this is “the next pandemic.”

News reports are calling for public health agencies to prepare accordingly by ramping up interagency biosurveillance, emergency response planning, stockpiling personal protective equipment and of course, expanding existing stocks of bird flu vaccines and developing better ones.

The U.S. government currently has three U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved H5N1 vaccines stored in the Strategic National Stockpile. The vaccines are manufactured by Sanofi, GSK and CSL Seqirus.

According to federal officials, if H5N1 were to spread widely among humans the U.S. government could distribute enough vaccines within four months to inoculate a fifth of the U.S. population, Barrons reported.

But media reports raised concerns about how effective those vaccines — developed as far back as 2007 — would be and urged the development and testing of new vaccines.

Farrar did the same in his statement, warning that vaccine development is “not where we need to be.”

Bolstering these claims, a recent research report posted in an April 20 press release found that an influenza pathogen is most likely to trigger a new pandemic in the near future — followed by “Disease X.”

However, the findings aren’t based on a study of any empirical data on actual disease.

Rather, the study reports the results of an online survey that asked global infectious disease experts to rank the diseases on the WHO’s “R&D Blueprint for Action to Prevent Epidemics” in the order they believed the diseases could cause the next pandemic.

Alarms sounded as WHO ‘Pandemic Treaty’ negotiation deadline looms

News reports about a “next pandemic” come just ahead of the WHO Pandemic Agreement meetings scheduled for May.

Member countries will meet to vote on a new Pandemic Agreement and amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) to grant the WHO wide authority over pandemic management, with an annual budget estimated at $31.1 billion.

The proposed treaty and the IHR would give the WHO unprecedented executive powers to declare an international health emergency at its own discretion, and then organize and mandate a response that overrides any response an individual nation might want to deploy instead.

Many have raised concerns that the proposals compromise national sovereignty, normalize dangerous rights violations and concentrate wealth on a global scale.

Resistance to the agreements is widespread, from many U.S. congresspeople and health freedom organizations to the protests in Japan.

These new developments also came as Farrar announced last week the WHO broadened its definition of airborne pathogens.

The new definition is meant to eliminate confusion around how to “describe the transmission of pathogens through the air that can potentially cause infection in humans,” to better prevent transmission, according to the WHO.

The terms “airborne transmission” and “aerosol transmission” were often confused during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To rectify that misuse and confusion, the “consensus document” sets a new standard by which any infectious disease that travels through the air, regardless of the size of “infectious respiratory particles,” is considered to be an airborne pathogen.

The WHO’s previous stance was that only a small number of pathogens that traveled in small droplets across large distances, like tuberculosis, were considered “airborne.”

The new classification removes the limit on particle size or the distance a pathogen might spread. Agencies have historically required high levels of proof before calling a disease airborne, which calls for stringent containment measures, CBC reported.

The new definition will make it easier to mandate containment measures for a wider range of infectious respiratory particles.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration also published its new “pandemic strategy” aimed at strengthening global biosecurity before “the next pandemic.”

Cases spreading among mammals

Over the past several years, millions of birds have been culled to prevent the spread of bird flu, as entire flocks are typically culled when cases are identified.

Earlier this month, the Texas Department of Agriculture announced that one of Texas’ largest poultry farms planned to kill nearly 2 million chickens after a single bird tested positive for H5N1. Commissioner Sid Miller warned that all producers in the state “must practice heightened biosecurity measures.”

Bird flu reports are seasonal, typically peaking in February. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it expects cases to ebb and flow. Over the last month, cases among chicken flocks have been confirmed in four states — New Mexico, Texas, Michigan and Minnesota.

The WHO also urged close monitoring and investigation of a reported outbreak of H5N1 among dairy cows in the U.S. “because it may evolve into transmitting in different ways,” and because how such transmission occurs is still unknown.

The virus has infected species other than birds. Over the last year, there have been reports of bird flu in minks, otters, foxes, seals, skunks and cattle, among others. According to some officials, animals are infected by wild birds.

Bird flu cases in cattle were first detected in the U.S. in March. USDA officials have since confirmed cases in 29 herds across eight states, including Michigan, Kansas and Texas, and a single case in a human in Texas, who had contact with an infected cow. His only symptom was conjunctivitis.

That is only the second documented case of human H5N1 in the U.S. The first was in a poultry worker in Colorado in 2022. According to a recent WHO report, between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 28, 2024, only 888 cases of bird flu infection in humans were reported globally, of which 52% were fatal.

The WHO announced last week that a Vietnamese man tested positive for avian influenza A (H9N2) in March. It said the man lives near a poultry market, but none of the birds at the market tested positive for the same virus.

The FDA says the risk of eggs or milk from infected animals getting to market is low because of inspections. And scientists say there is no evidence that consuming food that has been pasteurized or cooked poses any risk to people.

At least 21 states have put restrictions cattle imports from affected states, with New York joining the list on Monday.

Regenerative farmer and crop scientist Howard Vlieger told The Defender the USDA’s approach to addressing bird flu by culling herds is ill-informed. Diseases periodically circulate through animal populations, he said.

The animals that are susceptible to the virus, Vlieger said, are those that are unhealthy — that have been raised on genetically modified and pesticide-laden feeds and confined in small, crowded spaces.

U.S. collaborating with Chinese on H5N1 gain-of-function research

Genomic sequencing of the virus in the Texas patient showed that a mutation in the virus’s genome has made the flu more likely to infect mammals. However, officials maintain the risk to people remains low.

Farrar said the A (H5N1) variant has become “a global zoonotic animal pandemic.”

“The great concern of course is that in … infecting ducks and chickens and then increasingly mammals, that virus now evolves and develops the ability to infect humans and then critically the ability to go from human to human,” he added.

Reports of this evolution led to calls for the USDA to share genomic sequences for the virus taken from various animals. The agency responded by making 239 virus sequences public.

Pandemic planning consultants celebrated the move, which STAT News said will make it possible to determine if the virus has acquired mutations that make it spread more easily, possibly to humans.

Discussion of a mutation easing spread, and Farrar’s comments, have renewed worries about gain-of-function research — which has for years been conducted on bird flu viruses.

In 2018, a U.S. government review panel quietly approved experiments in two labs to modify bird flu viruses to make them more risky to humans — despite a moratorium — imposed in 2014 — on that research, Science reported in 2019.

At least one of those projects was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

And in 2011, an experiment by one of those groups had already modified the avian H5N1 virus to spread between ferrets.

USA Today’s Alison Young revealed last year that there was a major safety breach in 2019 during one of the experiments that was approved in 2018. While working in the biosafety level three lab at the University of Wisconsin, the hose providing safe clean air to the researchers was disconnected, exposing the researchers to the modified virus.

Another breach occurred in 2013 when a researcher was accidentally stuck with an infected needle.

The USDA has since 2021 collaborated with Chinese scientists in gain-of-function research on bird flu viruses.

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