China Has Withheld Samples of a Dangerous [Bird] Flu Virus [H7N9]

Despite an international agreement, U.S. health authorities still have not received H7N9 avian flu specimens from their Chinese counterparts.

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Health workers attending to an H7N9 avian flu patient in Wuhan, China, in 2017. CreditCreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
For over a year, the Chinese government has withheld lab samples of a rapidly evolving influenza virus from the United States — specimens needed to develop vaccines and treatments, according to federal health officials.

Despite persistent requests from government officials and research institutions, China has not provided samples of the dangerous virus, a type of bird flu called H7N9. In the past, such exchanges have been mostly routine under rules established by the World Health Organization.

Now, as the United States and China spar over trade, some scientists worry that the vital exchange of medical supplies and information could slow, hampering preparedness for the next biological threat.

The scenario is “unlike shortages in aluminum and soybeans,” said Dr. Michael Callahan, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School.

“Jeopardizing U.S. access to foreign pathogens and therapies to counter them undermines our nation’s ability to protect against infections which can spread globally within days.”

Experts concur that the world’s next global pandemic will likely come from a repeat offender: the flu. The H7N9 virus is one candidate.

Since taking root in China in 2013, the virus has spread through poultry farms, evolving into a highly pathogenic strain that can infect humans. It has killed 40 percent of its victims.

If this strain were to become highly contagious among humans, seasonal flu vaccines would provide little to no protection. Americans have virtually no immunity.

“Pandemic influenza spreads faster than anything else,” said Rick A. Bright, the director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees vaccine development. “There’s nothing to hold it back or slow it down. Every minute counts.”

Under an agreement established by the World Health Organization, participating countries must transfer influenza samples with pandemic potential to designated research centers “in a timely manner.”

That process — involving paperwork, approval through several agencies and a licensed carrier — normally takes several months, according to Dr. Larry Kerr, the director of pandemics and emerging threats at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But more than one year after a devastating wave of H7N9 infections in Asia — 766 cases were reported, almost all in China — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still waiting for several viral samples, the National Security Council and the W.H.O. confirmed.

Scientists at the Department of Agriculture have had such difficulty obtaining flu samples from China that they have stopped requesting them altogether, according to a government official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

At least four research institutions have relied upon a small group of H7N9 samples from cases in Taiwan and Hong Kong. (All four asked not to be identified for fear of further straining ties.)

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention also did not reply to inquiries regarding the transfer.

When the H7N9 virus first appeared in China, researchers say the Chinese government at first provided timely information. But communication has gradually worsened.

Yet a sudden spike in infections during the 2016-2017 outbreak wave demands intense research, said scientists aiming to understand the virus’ evolution.

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Health workers culling chickens in Hong Kong in 2014 following an outbreak of avian flu.CreditPhilippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Recent trade tensions could worsen the problem.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative in April released a proposed list of products to be targeted for tariffs — including pharmaceutical products such as vaccines, medicines and medical devices.

So far, none of those medical products have landed on the final tariff lists. But lower-level trade negotiations with China concluded on Thursday with few signs of progress, increasing the likelihood of additional tariffs.

The United States relies on China not only for H7N9 influenza samples but for medical supplies, such as plastic drip mechanisms for intravenous saline, as well as ingredients for certain oncology and anesthesia drugs. Some of these are delivered through a just-in-time production model; there are no stockpiles, which could prove dangerous if the supply was disrupted, health officials said.

Scientists believe top commerce officials in both governments view the viral samples much like any other laboratory product, and may be unfamiliar with their vital role in global security.

“Countries don’t own their viral samples any more than they own the birds in their skies,” said Andrew C. Weber, who oversaw biological defense programs at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

“Given that this flu virus is a potential threat to humanity, not sharing it immediately with the global network of W.H.O. laboratories like C.D.C. is scandalous. Many could die needlessly if China denies international access to samples.”

For over a decade, epidemiological data and samples have been used as trade war pawns.

China hid the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, for four months and then kept the findings of its research private. Some provinces withheld information about cases even from the central government in Beijing.

In 2005, Chinese authorities insisted an H5N1 influenza outbreak was contained, contradicting University of Hong Kong scientists who offered evidence that it was expanding. Those authorities hesitated to share viral samples from infected wild birds with the international community, concealing the scope to avoid a hit to their vast poultry industry.

Indonesia followed suit, refusing in 2007 to share specimens of H5N1 with the United States and United Kingdom, arguing that the countries would use the samples to develop a vaccine that Indonesians could not afford.

Those episodes led to the 2011 development of the W.H.O.’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, which aims to promote sample exchanges as well as developing countries’ access to vaccines.

But for countries like China, bearing the burden of a novel virus is paradoxical. Outbreaks are expensive — the wave of H7N9 infections in 2013 alone cost China more than $6 billion, according to the United Nations — but they can provide a head-start in developing valuable treatments.

“In a sense, China has made lemonade from lemons — converting the problem of global infectious disease threats into lifesaving and valuable commodities,” Dr. Callahan said.

And now, as the H7N9 virus evolves, United States authorities worry that the Chinese have obfuscated the scale and features of this outbreak.

The Chinese government has refused to share clinical data from infected patients, according to scientists, and claims to have all but eradicated H7N9 through a single poultry vaccination campaign.

“Influenza is going to do what it does best, which is mutate,” Dr. Kerr said.

EARLIER REPORTING ON THE TRADE FLIGHT AND BIRD FLU
U.S. and China to Rekindle Trade Talks as More Tariffs Loom

Bird Flu Is Spreading in Asia, Experts (Quietly) Warn

Animal Rights and Public Health Advocates Disrupt NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett Over Ritual Sacrifice

https://theirturn.net/2018/07/01/activists-disrupt-nyc-health-commissioner-mary-bassett/

JULY 1, 2018 BY 

As NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett began delivering remarks at a forum about charitable giving, activists angered by her refusal to enforce health codes violated during an animal sacrifice shut down her talk.  This was the fifth time that activists have disrupted Commissioner Bassett over her support of Kaporos, a religious ritual during which ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City swing an estimated 60,000 six-week old chickens around their heads and slaughter them, contaminating the streets and sewers with their blood, body parts, feathers and feces.

“How can Commissioner Bassett make a presentation in good conscience about taking care of the less fortunate when she’s endangering the health of some of NYC’s most vulnerable residents?” asked Nathan Semmel, one of the organizers of the disruption. “We know we can’t ask Dr. Bassett to align her behavior with the values she publicly espouses, but we can demand that she enforce the law.”

A dozen animal rights and public health advocates disrupt NYC Health Commissioner over her refusal to enforce health codes violated during a mass animal sacrifice on public streets.

The most recent protest comes on the heels of news about the spread of bird flu. On June 15th, Newsweek reported that The Centers for Disease Control said the current strain of avian influenza has “the greatest potential to cause a pandemic of all human viruses.”  If the flu spreads to the United States, New Yorkers will be particularly vulnerable because tens of thousands of city residents come into contact with the sick and dying chickens who are stacked in crates on the streets for several days leading up to the Kaporos ritual.

NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett refuses to acknowledge a toxicology report which includes avian flu as one of many health risks associated with the ritual sacrifice Kaporos (center photo: Unparalleled Suffering Photography)

Sources inside the administration say that Commissioner Bassett is refusing to enforce the health laws because the ultra-Orthodox Jews who violate them represent a powerful voting bloc that helped to elect her boss, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett refuses to acknowledge the multiple health codes are violated during a mass sacrifice of 60,000 six week old chickens on public streets.

“Not only does Dr. Bassett refuse to enforce the health codes, but she also refuses to acknowledge a toxicology report which unequivocally states that the violations jeopardize the public health by exposing New Yorkers to e-coli, salmonella, avian flu and many other pathogens and toxins,” said Jessica Hollander, who participated in the protest.  “Her decision to put politics ahead of public health will come back to haunt her if a disease outbreak occurs because she has been warned by experts that the illegal animal sacrifice poses serious health risks.”

Multiple health codes are violated during Kaporos, a ritual animal sacrifice, but NYC Health Commissioner Mary Bassett turns a blind eye because the practitioners represent a powerful voting bloc.

Seabirds Washing Up Dead; Scientists Investigating

A dead murre lies on the sand where it washed ashore in Nome in June 2018.

SEABIRDS have once again been found washed up on beaches in Western Alaska.

Beginning in May, birds have been reported dead or behaving strangely in communities throughout the Bering Strait region, from Shishmaref to Unalakleet and on St. Lawrence Island.

Large-scale die-offs of seabirds and other marine animals have been occurring around the state for several years, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) wants to know why. That takes the help of boots-on-the-ground partners across Alaska.

Gay Sheffield is one of those partners. She’s a marine biologist with Alaska Sea Grant in Nome, and she has helped coordinate the collection of dead birds. She says only one bird has been tested so far this year: a murre, collected in Unalakleet in May.

“The murre was tested for harmful algal blooms, tested for avian cholera, was tested for bird flu, and a full necropsy—or a little bird autopsy—was done, and the result was that the bird had starved to death.”

But, she says, knowing that a bird ultimately didn’t get enough food doesn’t answer the larger question of why it died.

Robb Kaler is a wildlife biologist at USFWS’s Migratory Bird Management office in Anchorage. He’s been monitoring the seabird die-offs statewide.

“They’re dying of starvation, but there might be other contributing factors.”

Kaler says factors contributing to bird deaths could include neurotoxin poisoning from algal blooms, increased storminess, or shifts in the type of fish available to birds to eat. And, he says, many of the factors could be connected to warming sea surface temperatures off the coast of Alaska.

Both Sheffield and Kaler underscored the importance of collecting more freshly dead birds. More samples mean more testing — and more information that can be returned to communities where healthy seabirds mean food security.

Kaler says:

“We need to provide them with answers on whether these birds are safe to consume or not, whether their eggs are safe to consume.”

Several birds were recently collected from Shishmaref and Gambell. Test results are forthcoming.

To report a seabird or other marine animal found dead or behaving strangely, contact Gay Sheffield at 434-1149 or Brandon Ahmasuk at Kawerak at 443-4265. You can also call U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Dead Seabird Hotline at (866) 527-3358.

Image at top: A dead murre that washed ashore in Nome in June 2018. Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM.

Chinese Chicken Is Headed To America, But It’s Really All About The Beef

Listen·3:18

Chicken meat for sale at a market in Anhui province, China.

VCG via Getty Images

Cooked chicken from birds grown and raised in China soon will be headed to America — in a trade deal that’s really about beef.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced Thursday night that the U.S. was greenlighting Chinese chicken imports and getting U.S. beef producers access to China’s nearly 1.4 billion consumers. But the deal is raising concerns among critics who point to China’s long history of food-safety scandals.

The Chinese appetite for beef is huge and growing, but American beef producers have been locked out of that market since a case of mad cow disease cropped up in the U.S. in 2003. In response, many countries, including South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China, banned imports of U.S. beef.

China was the only one of those nations to not eventually lift its ban — and that’s a big deal.

“It’s a very big market; it’s at least a $2.5 billion market that’s being opened up for U.S. beef,” Ross said in announcing the trade deal.

Many people long had seen China’s refusal to lift its ban on U.S. beef imports as a negotiating tactic, a tit for tat aimed at allowing Chinese chicken imports into the United States. The negotiations that led to the new trade deal have been going back and forth for more than a decade, stalled at one point by worries in Congress over China’s food-safety practices.

American beef producers are rejoicing that the process has finally resulted in allowing them to send beef to China.

“After being locked out of the world’s largest market for 13 years, we strongly welcome the announcement that an agreement has been made to restore U.S. beef exports to China,” Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement. “It’s impossible to overstate how beneficial this will be for America’s cattle producers, and the Trump administration deserves a lot of credit for getting this achieved.”

The U.S. should be cleared to export beef to China by mid-July. That’s also the deadline for the U.S. to finalize rules for the importation of cooked chicken products from China. Why cooked chicken instead of raw?

“For a country to be able to ship meat and poultry products into the U.S., they have to demonstrate that their food-safety inspection system is equivalent to the system here in the U.S.,” explains Brian Ronholm, who served as deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration.

“The equivalency determination process for China as it relates to processed [cooked] chicken products had been underway, and this deal expedites this process,” he says. “China also is seeking equivalency for their inspection system for slaughter facilities, but that will be a longer process.”

Given the many outbreaks of avian flu China has experienced, there are also worries that if raw Chinese poultry were processed in the U.S., it could potentially contaminate American plants or somehow spread to birds here in the States.

Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, has been raising concerns about efforts to open the U.S. market to Chinese chicken imports for years. He questions the Chinese government’s ability to enforce food-safety standards, given its poor track record.

That record includes rat meat being sold as lamb, oil recovered from drainage ditches in gutters being sold as cooking oil, and baby formula contaminated with melamine that sickened hundreds of thousands of babies and killed six. In 2014, a Shanghai food-processing factory that supplied international restaurant brands including McDonald’s and KFC was caught selling stale meat, repackaged with new expiration dates.

Corbo points out that last December, China’s own Food and Drug Administration reported it had uncovered as many as a half-million cases of food-safety violations just in the first three quarters of 2016.

That said, the USDA has gone to China to inspect plants that would process the chicken to be shipped to America. But Corbo finds little comfort in that. “You don’t know from moment to moment how China is enforcing food-safety standards,” Corbo says.

In recent months, a team from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has traveled to China to train Chinese officials in meat safety.

One thing Thursday’s trade deal did not address: U.S. poultry exports to China. The U.S. used to send a lot of chicken feet over to China, where they are a delicacy. But China banned U.S. chicken imports in 2015, after an outbreak of avian flu in the Midwest.

China “was a $750 million market just a few years ago, and now it’s essentially zero. It was one of our most important markets,” says Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council.

But Sumner isn’t worried about the new competition from Chinese chicken in the U.S. In fact, he welcomes it as an important step in reopening the Chinese market to U.S. poultry producers.

“Trade is a two-way street,” he says.

It’s not clear how soon after mid-July we can expect to see cooked chicken products from China in U.S. supermarkets. Sumner says he doesn’t expect the product to overwhelm store shelves, because the economics of raising chickens in China and then shipping them to America still favors U.S. producers.

Maria Godoy is a senior editor with NPR News and host of The Salt. She’s on Twitter: @mgodoyh

Illegal trade of parrots rampant in China

http://www.ecns.cn/cns-wire/2017/05-10/256844.shtml

 

2017-05-10

Scarlet macaws in an exposition park. (Photo/Beijing News)

Scarlet macaws in an exposition park. (Photo/Beijing News)

(ECNS) — The illegal trade of parrots is rampant in China, with the price of highly popular rare species exceeding 1,000 yuan ($145), Beijing News reports.

Chinese law only allows for the purchase of parrots by zoos or the exchange of the birds between breeding bases and forbids any other form of transaction, so it is illegal to sell parrots to customers, said an industry insider.

In 2009, the sun conure or sun parakeet was listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCU) as one of the most endangered species globally, being under second class state protection in China. China doesn’t allow artificial breeding of sun conures, not to mention trade of the bird on the market.

However, it is hugely popular among Chinese bird keepers.

Many Taobao vendors sell sun conures at a price of around 50 yuan, while the bird is usually sold for between 300 and 500 yuan on other e-commerce platforms and via online flea markets, the paper said.

In a market near Beijing’s 3rd Ring Road, a vendor suggested an underground trade of sun conures, because “the bird isn’t allowed to be traded here in the market”.

It usually took the vendor a week to source the bird, at a price of 2,000 yuan a pair. “Because transport costs are high and supervision has now been beefed up, prices will naturally be higher,” said the vendor.

Zou Chuangqi, general manager of a parrot-breeding company in South China’s Fujian Province said parrots for exhibition or appreciation need frequent disinfection by spraying liquid medicine on their beaks and noses to prevent bird flu.

Li Li, head of Beijing Heibao Wildlife Protection Station, said poor disinfection or epidemic protection could cause the spread of bird flu as cases are increasing.

 

The Chicken Economy

  • Written by  Steve Hinchliffe
  • Published in Opinions
The Chicken EconomyBukhanovskyy

24Apr
2017
2017 is the Chinese year of the chicken. This year, the best estimate suggests a record 94 million tonnes of chicken meat will be produced

That’s roughly 52 billion chickens. In the last 50 years, chicken has moved from being a rare food item, too perishable to mass market, to a staple of protein-rich (and low-fat) diets for a growing human population. But it’s not just the numbers that have altered. In the UK, supermarkets have led the field in changing the ways in which chickens are farmed and processed. Agricultural science and military-style logistics have converted a supplementary source of farm income into a highly organised, vertically-integrated industry.

Chickens are now reared under optimal conditions for economic profit and biological growth. High throughput of densely housed and specifically bred birds increase turnover (or the rate at which fully-grown chickens can be sold for meat). The result is a high-volume, low-margin industry, where the profit on each chicken is small but the real money is to be made in developing market share and volume.

Chickens now reach market at almost twice their previous slaughter weight. More astonishingly, improved housing, the use of enriched feeds and growth-promoting antibiotics mean they reach these new weights in half the time; less than 45 days to grow to market weight (sometimes only 38 days). An average poultry farm now houses several hundred thousand birds, arranged in sheds with 30,000 or so in each, all ‘growing’ in a tightly choreographed system to an established end, when they are ‘harvested’, transported and processed to reach supermarket shelves on time and at the correct price. Industry vets say the birds go through the process like ‘race-horses’.

This is an economic model (pile it high, sell it cheap while tuning biological processes to work as hard as possible at the lathe of production) that some say is symptomatic of our age. The journalist Felicity Lawrence suggests the chicken ‘is one of the defining commodities of our era… the sugar, tea and opium of the age.’ If Henry Ford and his motor cars defined the early 20th century, then the chicken and the often casual labour used to harvest and process its meat, Lawrence has suggested, defines our current times. These times can be characterised by global supply chains, precarious labour conditions, and biological stress.

platformAn average poultry farm now houses several hundred thousand birds, arranged in sheds with 30,000 or so in each (Image: Guitar photographer)

This year is also a year of seemingly unprecedented incidences of bird flu. By the middle of January there had been nearly 650 outbreaks of a deadly and virulent form in Europe, involving more than 200,000 cases. This European strain is currently thought not to be dangerous to people. But in China, another strain was, and has this year reached new levels of infection and mortality. The concern is that this may spread globally. By virtue of its ability to adapt, avian flu is known as a ‘potential pandemic pathogen’.

Standard explanations for the increased incidences of bird flu include failures in something called biosecurity. Disease experts often focus on the site of an outbreak. Those farms that allow poultry to mix with wild birds, or places such as live bird markets (particularly in parts of Asia where there is insufficient hygiene), are often blamed for disease spread. These may well be important points for contagion. Yet, there is another pressing question to ask: are the intensively raised, factory-farmed birds that make up the bulk of the 52 billion killed annually also part of the problem? When you add so many birds to the world’s biomass, all growing at rates and in conditions that change their immune responses, then it seems logical that you have changed the conditions for disease. Perhaps instead of sites, we need to focus on this global disease situation?

The evidence for this shift of attention is starting to emerge. First of all, it is important to say that all farms and forms of production involve plenty of opportunity for microbes, like the avian influenza virus, to circulate. Viruses can move with stock, pests, and with staff. The teams that often move from farm to farm to harvest poultry ‘crops’ may be a particular risk. Second, densely farmed birds may be more infectable. Immune systems are compromised at such growth rates, and once the virus is in a flock, it is clearly going to spread with impunity. Third, there is evidence that this avian biomass is altering the genetic make up of the viruses. In evolutionary terms, if you change a microbe’s environment, you are also going to provide the conditions for changing the microbe. Microbes evolve rapidly, and bird flu viruses are known to be particularly promiscuous, adapting quickly to hosts and so on. The raw material for the flu viruses has increased in number and availability as global production has expanded. The microbes are getting better at taking advantage.

Modernising agriculture is clearly of benefit to a world that needs to eat, and eat safely. And yet, we need to be wary of those tipping points at which the gains of modernisation start to backfire. As I write, the international restaurant chain Chipotle, which uses 64,000 tonnes of chicken meat annually, has announced that it is abandoning fast-growing chickens. Driven by food safety concerns and evidence that slower growth results in less disease, we may be seeing the start of a  crucial shift. The health costs of cheap meat may now be tipping the balance. Redressing that would make this year of the chicken one that could be good for all of us.

Avian flu restrictions at Cotswold Wildlife Park gave the birds another type of fever… the love bug!

 http://www.banburycake.co.uk/news/15241796.Avian_flu_restrictions_at_wildlife_park_gave_the_birds_another_type_of_fever___/

12 hrs ago / by Pete Hughes

LONG periods in close confinement can have strange effects on people, and, in the case of the birds at Cotswold Wildlife Park, the results were rather surprising.

Park keepers were forced to lock up hundreds of tropical and exotic birds in December under nationwide avian flu precautions issued by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

That meant Cotswold Wildlife Park, like farmers in Oxfordshire and across the county, had to keep all birds indoors until further notice.

When the restrictions were finally lifted this month park keepers started unlocking cages only to discover the long period in close quarters had seemingly created a romantic mood, and several species had begun breeding.

As a result the Bird Walkthrough at Cotswold’s Walled Garden, home to the scarlet ibis, Bali starlings and others will remain closed until further notice.

Curator Jamie Craig explained: “Following the news from Defra that avian influenza restrictions have now been lifted, the tropical house and lake area are once again open to visitors. We remain vigilant and are prepared to take action should the situation change.

“The Bird Walkthrough in the Walled Garden remains closed as several bird species started to breed during the time of the recent restrictions. As not to disturb the breeding birds at this delicate stage, the enclosure is currently closed but is fully visible to visitors.”

The avian flu restrictions came in after the disease was detected in more than 5,000 birds on a poultry farm near Louth in Lincolnshire.

It was the first confirmed case in Britain of the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain, which had already been circulating in countries across Europe, from Poland to France.

DEFRA announced on April 11 that all poultry was to be once again allowed out as of the 13th

UK chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said that while the H5N8 strain of bird flu which caused more than 1,000 outbreaks across Europe over winter may remain in the environment, the danger of cross-contamination had subsided.

A ban on gatherings of poultry, such as pure breed showings, remains in place until further notice.

It’s especially good timing for Cotswold Wildlife Park as the the new came just in time to celebrate World Penguin Day

The number of new flu viruses is increasing, and could lead to a pandemic

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-04-flu-viruses-pandemic.html

April 7, 2017 by C Raina Macintyre, Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, And Chau Bui, The Conversation
Flu virus
Flu virus

Influenza has affected humans for over 6,000 years, causing pandemics at regular intervals. During the 1918 Spanish flu, it was thought to be a bacteria, until an American physician Richard Shope identified the virus in 1931.

So how is it this pathogen has managed to stay around for so long, and why haven’t we beaten it yet? The answer is that influenza is a that changes rapidly and regularly.

New flu vaccines are required every year due to these changes and mutations of the virus. While all flu viruses which infect humans are similar, a (which is easily transmitted between humans) is significant because humans have no immunity to it, and so are vulnerable to severe infection and death. Seasonal viruses which we see year after year were once , but humans have now been exposed to these viruses and have some background immunity to them.

We have found that the last decade has seen an acceleration in the number of infecting humans.

Why are there so many flu strains today?

Around 100 years ago the world experienced the Spanish flu pandemic, and it took another 39 years for a novel influenza virus to emerge. It took a decade after that for the next one. Since 2011, however, we have seen seven novel and variant strains emerge. This is a very large increase compared to the past.

The reasons for this increase are unknown, but there could be many. One reason could be better diagnostics and testing; another could be changes in poultry farming and animal management practices, since influenza is a virus that affects humans, birds and many animal species; as well as changes in climate, urbanisation and other ecological influences.

But none of these factors have changed at the same rate as the emergence of new viruses has escalated. This warrants new research to unpack the relative contributions of all the different possible factors.

Another change is advances in genetic engineering tools, which make it possible to edit the genome of any living organism, including viruses. The possibility of a lab accident or deliberate release of engineered flu viruses is real. Experiments to engineer influenza viruses have been published since 2011, and remain controversial for the possible risk, compared to the relative possible benefit.

With so many more novel influenza viruses emerging and circulating, the probability of genetic mutation and emergence of a new pandemic strain is higher today than any time in the past. It’s a matter of when, not if.

What can we do to prevent a pandemic?

There’s actually already a lot being done to plan for and prevent another flu pandemic. This is both in terms of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines, and non-pharmaceutical interventions like personal protective equipment, quarantine, border control and banning of mass gatherings in the event of an outbreak.

National pandemic plans outline interventions and the best sequence of different interventions, as well as prioritisation of these interventions. Most countries also conduct pandemic hypotheticals to test their systems and responses. But the best laid plans do not account for every possibility, and we usually encounter the unexpected.

For example, during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the pandemic phases outlined in the Australian pandemic plan were revised to better fit the emerging situation. This highlights the need to be able to rapidly respond to changing circumstances and change strategies when required.

What about vaccines?

Vaccination is the most talked about strategy but producing a matched vaccine takes three to six months at a minimum. The pandemic would be expected to peak within about two months, so vaccines can’t be relied on until after the peak of the pandemic. Instead, we need to use antiviral medications, social distancing measures, personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, isolation and quarantine to contain the pandemic.

Influenza vaccines are specific to strains of flu, and can be used for humans, birds or animals. However, they will only work against the specific strains the vaccine was designed for. There are no vaccines for many of the novel strains emerging all over the world.

It’s almost impossible to anticipate which specific virus will cause the next pandemic. At best we can prepare pre-pandemic vaccines which require an educated guess as to which virus may mutate into a pandemic strain, and make a vaccine against that.

A strain-specific pandemic planning strategy like this is not the best approach, as illustrated by the swine flu pandemic in 2009. From 2005 until 2009, the avian flu virus H5N1 ( are defined and named by proteins on their surface, haemagglutinin – H, and neuraminidase – N) was the major cause of bird flu, so the world focused heavily on preparing for a H5N1 pandemic and developing a H5 pre-pandemic .

However, the virus that caused the 2009 pandemic was H1N1, a completely different virus, so the pre- vaccines were no use.

A better approach is to try to prevent the emergence of new virus in birds and animals, and mitigate the risks once they emerge. This involves control strategies in both animal and human health sectors, surveillance and prevention efforts.

A targeted approach in global hotspots such as China, the source of the H7N9 influenza virus, and Egypt, which is experiencing a surge in H5N1 influenza, will also help.

Hotspots are generally where humans and livestock mix in close proximity, such as backyard poultry farms and live bird markets. Asia has historically been such a site. However, we sometimes see unusual outbreaks such as the bird flu outbreak in turkey farms in the USA in 2015.

Culling of birds is a commonly used method to control the risk once infection is detected. As are measures such as regulation of live bird markets and of the poultry and livestock industries. Excellent surveillance, rapid intelligence and picking up potential pandemics as they arise can make all the difference. We probably had a near miss pandemic strain arising in Indonesia in 2006, but the remote location and early detection mitigated the risk.

Explore further: Scientists ‘must not become complacent’ when assessing pandemic threat from flu viruses

Flu pandemic likelihood increasing as new strains emerge, UNSW researchers warn

by Harriet Alexander

A gathering number of new influenza strains in the past five years has escalated the likelihood of a major influenza pandemic on the scale of the deadly Spanish flu, researchers say.

UNSW researchers in the school of public health are calling for better collaboration between countries and first responder agencies in the event of a flu pandemic.

Their study published in the Archives of Public Health identified 19 separate influenza strains that have emerged in humans during the past century, including seven in the past five years alone.

Raina MacIntyre, director of the UNSW’s Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response, said the unprecedented rise in new strains appeared to be a true increase and not just a matter of more cases being detected.

“The question is, why?” Professor MacIntyre said.

“Some of the reasons involve things like climate change and its impact on pathogens, changes like urbanisation, but none of these things have increased at the rate the virus is increasing so there’s something else going on.”

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The Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 1918-19, was followed by a 40-year hiatus during which no new flu strains emerged, and then a 10-year gap from the one after that to the next.

But the emergence of strains has gathered pace in the past 15 years.

Professor MacIntyre said a repeat of the Spanish flu was “very possible” and countries and sectors such as health, agriculture, defence and emergency services needed to collaborate better on how to respond in such an event.

“We are somewhat prepared, but when pandemics occur there are almost always unanticipated scenarios,” she said.

“When health systems become stressed and unable to cope with the sick, that is when we are truly tested.”

Influenza strains that have developed in recent years have been transmissible only from birds to humans and not between people, and fatalities have been rare.

But study co-author Chau Bui said the large number of viruses circulating among birds in recent years increased the likelihood that one would mutate and become transmissible between humans.

The risks could be mitigated by banning the sale of live birds in wet markets in Asia, thereby reducing the spread of viruses between birds, and controlling the purchase of live or freshly slaughtered poultry in wet markets to stop the public coming into contact with the bodily fluids of infected poultry, she said.

Special Interest Group for Influenza chair Alan Hampson, who was not part of the study, said there needed to be more research into the genetics of influenza viruses because if they were able to bind to human receptors, or survive in the air, then person-to-person transmission would become more likely.

“These viruses are reinventing themselves all the time,” Dr Hampson said.

“Most people think it’s highly probable that we will have influenza pandemics in the future and it may come from a source that’s being looked at under the World Health Organisation surveillance program or it may be like the one in 2009 that came out of left field and took us all by surprise.”

Meanwhile, a study by the US Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has found that flu vaccinations significantly reduce a child’s chances of dying from influenza.

Using data from 2010 to 2014, the researchers found only one in four children who died had been vaccinated.

How the Trump budget undercuts security risks posed by pandemics

http://theconversation.com/how-the-trump-budget-undercuts-security-risks-posed-by-pandemics-75281

April 4, 2017 9.09pm EDT
Women in rural Malawi, outside an AIDS hospital. AIDS was the first of the ‘new’ pandemic threats, after bird flu. Author provided. , Author provided

President Trump proposed a US$54 billion military budget increase to solidify the security of our nation. However, the government also recognizes pandemic threats as an issue of national security – one that knows no borders.

In the last four years, we have faced the Ebola epidemic – contained after significant loss of life – and Zika, which is still not contained. Collectively, we will feel these effects for a generation, while children born with Zika-related defects and their families will feel the effects every day of their lives.

The U.S. is a leading member of the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), a growing international partnership created to respond to infectious disease threats. Yet the Trump budget slashes funding for the very agencies mandated to prevent pandemics. Take, for example, the 37 percent cut to the $50 billion State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, more than one-third of which targets global health security. As a global health researcher, I think this reveals a grave lack of understanding of the nuances and complexity of this national security issue.

The way the military protects America’s welfare is straightforward. The way that other U.S. agencies prevent pandemics is less understood. That it’s complicated shouldn’t stop our commitment to it.

Threats are closer than we realize

There are imminent threats that aren’t in the realm of hypothetical. Here’s an example: In January of this year, the government issued a travel warning in response to an active outbreak of H7N9 bird flu in China.

This strain of avian flu is worrisome because a few small mutations would allow it to spread from person to person. This could be the next pandemic to sweep the globe.

Historically speaking, we are overdue for a bird flu disaster. They have been documented over the past two centuries and appear every 40 years on average; the last one was in 1969.

Officials in southwest France ordered the slaughter of more than 600,000 ducks in February 2017 after an outbreak of bird flu. Bob Edme/AP

While preventing pandemics is expensive, it’s infinitely cheaper than the costs of actual pandemics. A report by the World Bank found a bird flu pandemic comparable to those from the last century could trigger a major global recession, with a fall in global GDP between 0.7 percent and 4.8 percent. While that might not sound like much, it represents $833 billion to $5.7 trillion.

Billions have already been spent on pandemics this century. As an epidemiologist who worked for one U.S. pandemic prevention initiative sponsored by USAID, I don’t question the amounts being spent. What I do question is the return on investment using current unproven strategies that do nothing to address the urgency of the situation right now.

National security, science and public health

Since the 1970s, when USAID recognized that improved population health was integral to development goals, the number of infectious disease outbreaks has tripled. In response, USAID created the Emerging Pandemic Threats program, which focuses on discovering new animal viruses that may pose threats to human health.

However, it’s a big jump to identifying an animal virus with pathogenic potential to one that actually “spills over” and infects human populations. Instead of being an applied public health program with immediate potential to prevent pandemics, virus discovery is traditional scientific research. This research also does not address other pathogens that already pose pandemic threat, such as Zika, which is mosquito-borne, or superbugs (i.e., multidrug resistant bacteria). It turns out that the real problem to preventing pandemics is people.

Limited knowledge of human practices that increase risk of infection and of the diseases that pose the greatest risk represent the fundamental challenges to prevention. In 2015, the World Health Organization developed a list of emerging diseases likely to cause severe outbreaks in the near future: Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola virus disease and Marburg, Lassa fever, MERS and SARS coronavirus diseases, Nipah and Rift Valley fever. Three “serious” backup diseases didn’t make the final cut: chikungunya, severe fever with thrombocytopaenia syndrome and Zika (avian flu is treated separately). As history has shown us with Zika, we have a pretty good sense of what we’re up against in terms of disease.

Is there a better way to prevent pandemics?

Tools exist to determine which high-risk diseases are already circulating in human populations. Ebola provides a useful example. Decades before an outbreak was reported, a study found that Liberians had been exposed to Ebola – and survived.

Although there are few studies like this, Liberia is not a unique example. Scientists in Gabon documented Ebola exposure years prior to its first reported outbreak. Disease exposure may predict countries at highest risk for future outbreaks, but provides no information about how people are infected.

That has changed. New tools exist which measure both the diseases that are circulating and the behaviors that put people at risk of catching them. In fact, this approach, which integrates biological and behavioral surveillance, is already familiar to other successful USAID programs.

The closer we come to identifying where an outbreak will occur and which disease will be the likely culprit, the faster we can prioritize areas of highest risk. Targeted prevention strategies include developing diagnostics and vaccines in enough quantity to inoculate the population at immediate risk.

Since outbreaks often happen in remote areas with limited health infrastructure, the ability to vaccinate and detect disease will involve health systems strengthening – again beginning with regions at highest risk of known outbreak potential.

On March 3, the government stated increased concern regarding upgraded H7N9 bird flu. Even if this is not the next pandemic, there is always another threat waiting in the wings. We have the tools to provide a formidable, cost-effective first pass at pandemic prevention. It’s time to get the most bang for the buck we still have left – and to protect our national security on all fronts.