What we know about the H5N8 flu that Russia has just detected in humans for the first time: a warning of the problems that are yet to come
In mid-December 2020, on a small farm in southern Russia, seven people started having flu symptoms. Seven cases of flu in rural Russia is something that, in a normal year, it wouldn’t have caught anyone’s attention, but we don’t live in normal years. This winter, as it happened in the austral winter, the flu has almost completely disappeared. Precautions to curb the transmission of the coronavirus have brought it to record lows. So why was there a flu outbreak on that Eastern European farm?
Even so, it is likely that if no one had tested the birds on the farm, everything would have gone unnoticed. But it was done and the results have made this weekend Russia has notified the World Health Organization the first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of bird flu to humans.
A notice of what may be to come
The Russian outbreak: Anna Popova, head of Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian health agency, came out this weekend to explain that it has been the Vector laboratory (one of the Russian biotechnology centers) the one that has isolated the genetic material and that “measures have been taken quickly to control the situation”. He also explained that the infected “are fine” and, for now, “this variant of the virus is not transmitted from one person to another.”
However, Popova herself has stressed that this detection “gives the whole world time to prepare” to create tests and vaccines “in the event that this virus is more pathogenic and dangerous for humans, and acquires the ability to be transmitted from Person to person”.
Because it is important? Traditionally, H5N8 (a subtype of the avian influenza virus) has been a very low pathogenic strain for humans, but terrible for birds (wild and poultry). Since the great 1983 outbreak in Ireland, the strain has been persecuted by health authorities for the devastating effects it has on the poultry industry. To get an idea of its dangerousness, in January 2017, France killed 800,000 birds to try to stop the transmission of the disease.
The problem is that the strain is highly contagious, and despite all these efforts, it has been almost impossible to get it under control. The only thing that kept it in the background was the fact that it didn’t affect humans. After all, if he couldn’t jump into our species, however contagious and dangerous it was, we were relatively safe. The news from Russia changes things.
How does it affect us? The Russian news changes things, but more as a warning than as a confirmation of a real problem. Hence, the Rospotrebnadzor warns that it is a good idea to start designing rapid tests and PCR kits to diagnose it, on the one hand; and the development of “template vaccines” to work on in the event of an outbreak becoming a pandemic. If we have learned anything from the “coronavirus crisis” it is that the variants are a permanent risk and, in that sense, the transmission of H5N8 between humans can be a matter of time.
Do not forget that the Generalitat of Catalonia confirmed last January the presence of the strain in birds of the Aiguamolls del Empordà Natural Park. That is to say, this strain of the virus is distributed throughout the world and its transmissibility only increases the chances that this will lead to a variant capable of being transmitted in humans as well.
Is it really a real problem? The truth is that now there is a rather complex task, assessing and preparing for this threat. On the one hand, as happened in the 2019 case of listeriosis in shredded meat, media sensitivity to all kinds of new cases can make us give more importance than it has to the event. On the other hand, it is not an unexpected event at all and about which it takes warning (with better or worse sense) for a long time.
However, the truth is that we never know what the next pathogen to stop the world will be. And, therefore, rather than focusing on specific cases, it seems that the idea is to start designing a system that allows us better react to the next big pandemic.
Imagen | Kirill Zharkoy