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Thursday, May 23, 2024

New Mutations in Bird Flu Virus Raise Concerns Amid Outbreak on Dairy Farms

A recent study has revealed that the bird flu virus, currently sweeping through dairy farms across multiple states, has undergone numerous mutations, some of which may enhance its ability to spread between species and reduce susceptibility to antiviral medications. While none of these mutations individually pose an immediate cause for alarm, experts caution that continued evolution of the virus during the outbreak could potentially lead to increased transmissibility among humans.

Richard Webby, an influenza expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, emphasized that flu viruses mutate regularly, and the key concern lies in the prevalence of mutations over time. He stated, “The real key would be if we start to see some of these mutations getting more prevalent,” noting that this scenario would elevate the risk level associated with the virus.

The virus, identified as H5N1, has affected cows in at least 36 herds across nine states, initially sparking concerns about the safety of milk consumption. However, these worries have largely been allayed, although the outbreak underscores the potential for viruses to jump between species in densely populated farm settings.

The study, published online and awaiting peer review, sheds light on the Department of Agriculture’s investigation, which had been largely opaque prior to this release. The research suggests that the outbreak likely began approximately four months before confirmation in late March, with the virus spreading silently among cows that exhibited no visible symptoms. Genetic analyses support these findings, indicating a timeline consistent with the study’s conclusions.

Researchers collected virus samples from 26 dairy farms across eight states, uncovering evidence of the virus’s transmission from wild birds to cattle in the Texas Panhandle. Subsequent spread occurred among dairy farms spanning Texas, Kansas, Michigan, and New Mexico, with instances of transmission back to wild birds and other animal species, including poultry, domestic cats, and a raccoon.

Louise Moncla, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, expressed concerns about the efficient transmission of the virus among cows, highlighting potential risks for individuals who interact closely with infected animals. She stressed the importance of identifying cases in humans to mitigate further spread.

The study authors emphasized the need for extensive surveillance, not only on affected farms but also within unaffected regions. Dr. Diego Diel, a virologist at Cornell University and one of the study’s authors, urged large-scale monitoring efforts to detect potential infections early. He suggested that many species may have been infected through contact with contaminated milk, which can contain high levels of the virus.

Of particular concern are mutations that could enhance the virus’s ability to infect or spread among mammals, including humans. While the virus has thus far only infected one individual during the current outbreak, mutations observed in both humans and cows raise apprehensions about potential future risks.

Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, emphasized the unpredictable nature of the virus’s evolution. While the possibility of a pandemic remains, Bloom noted that H5N1 has circulated among various species for over two decades without triggering widespread human transmission.

The ongoing outbreak of bird flu on dairy farms underscores the importance of vigilance in monitoring viral mutations and potential risks to human health. Continued surveillance and research efforts are essential to mitigate the spread of the virus and prevent potential future outbreaks.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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