Apparently seven people in Russia have been given the bird. The bird flu, that is. And it was some fowl play.
Back in November 2020, I wrote for Forbes about how an avian influenza strain, A(H5N8), was spreading among birds in Europe. Well, it appears that this strain has since made it from birds to some humans. TASS, the Russian News Agency, reported the detection of this strain of the flu in seven poultry farm workers in southern Russia. They quoted Anna Popova, Head of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing, as saying: “scientists of the Vector Center isolated the genetic material of this kind of bird flu in seven workers of a poultry farm in the south of the Russian Federation, where an outbreak in bird population was recorded in December 2020.” These would have been the first confirmed cases of A(H5N8) bird flu infections in the world.
TASS reported that all seven farm workers are now in “good health” with the clinical course being “very mild.” According to TASS, Popova said that “The data on the first case of the infection of humans with the A(H5N8) flu have already been sent to the World Health Organization (WHO). This happened a few days ago, as soon as we became absolutely confident in our results.” They didn’t elaborate on exactly when in December the cases emerged and when Russian authorities actually became aware of the issue. In other words, it’s not clear who knew what when where and how. Apparently, the WHO does know about this now.
Of course, news of humans getting infected by a strain of the bird flu is typically not good. It’s not as if you should say, “way to go viruses! You made it!” Anytime a human gets infected for the first time with a virus that normally infects other animals, there is the potential for major trouble. Your immune system is not used to getting infected with such viruses and, therefore, may not be ready to provide adequate defense. It would be like a cat showing up at your house with a space laser. You wouldn’t quite know what to do and would not be prepared to offer the proper response. An example of a appropriate response might be asking, “would you consider putting down that space laser and sharing some avocado toast with me instead” or simply “meow.”
Even worse, when your immune system is not used to such a threat, it could overreact. It can be like a nervous guy who doesn’t know what to do on a date, just trying anything. Should he talk about his muscles or his car? Should he offer more compliments or sing the song “Hallelujah?” Similarly, your immune system could release all sorts of chemicals and mobilize cells in an misguided effort to stamp out the threat. As a result, your immune system could still miss the virus but along the way severely damage your own body.
This is essentially what happened when the Covid-19 coronavirus, otherwise known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2) in case you want to use more words to describe the same thing, somehow made its way from other animals such as bats to humans. You as a human, assuming that you are human and not a hedgehog dressed as a human, did not have the proper defenses in your body set up already. When you got infected with the SARS-CoV2, you and your immune system were essentially caught with your proverbial pants down, unless of course your were on a Zoom call without your pants.
MORE FOR YOU
It’s also what happened back in 2009, when a swine flu strain, H1N1, jumped to humans. If you recall, the result was a pandemic as well, albeit one that wasn’t as severe as the current one.
That doesn’t mean that you should press the panic button whenever a jump from other animals to humans occurs. First of all, if you have a panic button installed in your bedroom, you should really re-consider the purpose of having such a button. Secondly, not every jump will lead to badness.
Expect such jumps of viruses from other animals to humans to occur here and there. Viruses like flu viruses are constantly having mutations. After infecting an animal, they effectively play the song “Let’s Get It On” over and over again, using the machinery in the animal’s cells to reproduce a lot. But a virus using a cell to reproduce yourself is like a cat using a photocopy machine. There will be errors in at least some of the copies.
With a relatively high mutation rate, each new copy of the virus has a chance of having a slightly different genetic code. This resulting mutations may not affect the virus in any concrete way or actually make the virus less capable of doing things. However, if the mutation actually improves the virus’s ability to survive and infect others like humans, then this new mutant strain may have a “fitness advantage.” This new strain can soon outcompete other strains and with more of its progeny surviving, become more common. This is how variants can arise and spread. A strain that can infect humans in addition to other animals can be likely to survive and thrive because it has more options to have “Cake by the Ocean,” which is not really about deserts by the sea, but more about doing the act of reproducing.
Of course, just because a virus can jump to humans for the first time doesn’t mean that a pandemic will begin. Unless a new dance craze starts where every human around the world gets paired up with a bird, the feathery kind of bird, it’s unlikely that a virus that can only spread from bird to human will have pandemic-potential. The big leap would be for a mutation to arise that would allow humans to pass the viruses along to each other. Thankfully, so far, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the H5N8 strain.
Nevertheless, this is a reminder that viruses are periodically able to jump from other animals to humans. Some of these leaps may lead to a small number of humans getting a bit sick. Some may lead to more severe illness. And some may become bigger problems, perhaps even “oh bleep” problems. Therefore, humans need to remain vigilant and set up surveillance systems that can catch and report these jumps as soon as possible, and not one or two months after they happen.
These jumps can happen anywhere around the world. Viruses don’t say, “oh, let’s jump close to a big medical laboratory so that we can be discovered and dealt with quickly.” Ideally, public health experts around the world should hear about a December outbreak in December or as soon afterwards as possible. Otherwise, delays in detecting, investigating, and reporting a virus jumping from birds to humans could end up giving a lot more people around the world the bird, the bird flu that is.