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Bird flu, what you need to know; The latest health stories from around the world

Avian Influenza Sampling Project 2006. Brant capture at Tutakoke Bird Camp, Coast of the Bering Sea just south of Hooper Bay, Alaska, near Chevak, Alaska. Image taken between June 14 – June 20, 2006. Becker, Don, USGS EROS Source DI-AI-0191 Don Becker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Amid some of the largest bird flu outbreaks in recorded history, health officials continue to worry about the impact of the diseases and whether it could transmit to humans, USA Today reported.

“There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what is currently happening with bird flu and what might happen in the future,” the report quoted Dr. Jay Varma, director of Cornell University’s Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response as saying.

Here’s what you need to know about bird flu:

  1. Bird flu has been on the radar of experts since the late 1990s.
  2. Currently, the strains causing outbreak are the avian influenza A (H5N1) viruses.
  3. These first arose in 2020 and spread via migratory birds to Africa, Asia and Europe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the report said.
  4. The H5N1 strains crossed to North America in late 2021.
  5. The US Department of Agriculture reported that over 58 million chickens have been affected in 47 states and only this week nearly 6,200 wild birds have been infected.
  6. Dr. Jay Varma said as per USA Today, “It seems like it spreads very easily among different bird species. You have so many different bird species that die off so rapidly from it.”
  7. So far, the USDA has detected H5N1 in various animals including skunks, foxes, raccoons, bears, mountain lions and dolphins, among others, the report said although most of the cases are individual in nature.
  8. Although an outbreak on a Spanish mink farm suggested that the virus may have adapted to mammal transmission, the report claimed. This is because the minks began showing signs of infection including loss of appetite, hypersalivation, depression, bloody snout and tremors. More than 51,000 minks were killed to stem the spread of the infection.

Peru has reported the death of 585 sea lions and 55,000 wild birds due to the H5N1 bird flu virus in recent weeks. Following the discovery of 55,000 dead birds in eight protected coastal areas, rangers found the bird flu that killed them had also claimed 585 sea lions in seven protected marine areas, the Sernanp natural areas protection agency said.

The dead birds included pelicans, various types of gulls, and penguins, the Sernanp said in a statement. Laboratory tests also confirmed the presence of H5N1 in the dead sea lions, prompting the authorities to announce a “biological vigilance protocol.”

For its part, Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) urged people and their pets to avoid contact with sea lions and sea birds on the beach.

The largest ever outbreak of bird flu is spilling over into mammals, including otters and foxes in the UK.

Figures released to the BBC show the virus has led to the death of about 208 million birds around the world and at least 200 recorded cases in mammals.

Public health bosses warn the mutation in mammals could see a jump to humans but the risk to the public is very low.

There will now be more targeted surveillance and testing of animals and humans exposed to the virus in the UK.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) still advises that avian flu is primarily a disease of birds, but experts across the globe are looking at the risks of it spilling over into other species.

Worldwide, the virus has been found in a range of mammals, including grizzly bears in America and mink in Spain, as well as in dolphin and seals.

In the UK, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has tested 66 mammals, including seals, and found nine otters and foxes were positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1.

The animals were found to have a mutation of the virus that could make it easier to infect mammals, but there was no evidence of transmission between mammals.


The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the feeble state of Japan’s vaccine research and development capabilities. Only now, for example, are Japanese regulators considering approval of the country’s first homegrown COVID-19 vaccines, months after many less advanced nations developed their own shots.

Determined to catch up, Japan is ramping up a 1.1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) initiative that aims to give it the capability to develop a vaccine for a new virus in 100 days, a goal being adopted by many countries.

That “very ambitious” push “is definitely a welcome development,” especially given that it will give neglected infectious diseases special attention, says Diane Griffin, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. The funding, first outlined by the government in 2021, is now starting to flow to basic and applied research, clinical trials of vaccine candidates, and an expansion of industry’s capacity to manufacture vaccines.

The decline of Japan’s vaccine sector was years in the making. “For the last 15 or 20 years, funding for infectious disease research has been getting lower and lower,” says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Prior to the pandemic, Japan’s spending amounted to less than 2% of that of the United States, and also trailed the United Kingdom, Germany, and China, according to a March 2021 report by Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. Paltry funding has left Japan with neither a critical mass of infectious disease experts nor many young scientists entering the field, Kawaoka says.

Vaccine research suffered. In the late 2010s, Ken Ishii, a vaccinologist at Japan’s National Institute of Biomedical Innovation, adopted the then-emerging messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to create a vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome. But the government and Japan’s pharmaceutical firms declined to fund human safety trials. “So the project was frozen,” says Ishii, now at the University of Tokyo.

The COVID-19 pandemic only made the weaknesses more obvious. As scientists in other nations rushed to understand SARS-CoV-2 and develop treatments, Japan’s researchers struggled to keep up. Just two scientists in Japan, for example, appeared on a 2021 list of the 300 most cited authors of COVID-19 research. By contrast, Italy and Hong Kong, with much smaller populations and research establishments, placed 18 and 14 authors, respectively, on that tally, included in a study of COVID-19 papers by a team led by Stanford University statistician John Ioannidis and reported in Royal Society Open Science.

The pandemic also highlighted Japan’s lack of a strong vaccine industry. Early on, amid fears that the United States and other nations would hoard vaccines for their own populations, Japanese officials worried “that we couldn’t save people we are responsible for,” says Michinari Hamaguchi, director general of the new Strategic Centre of Biomedical Advanced Vaccine Research and Development for Preparedness and Response (SCARDA). Japan ultimately managed to buy the vaccines it needed, but Hamaguchi says the scare prompted officials to push for the “reconstitution” of domestic vaccine capabilities.

Although trailing firms in other nations, Japanese pharmaceutical companies are getting close to rolling out their own vaccines. Last month, Daiichi Sankyo asked regulators to allow it to sell its mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. The company plans to offer it as a booster shot.

One key element of the vaccine initiative is the March 2022 creation of SCARDA, which was partly inspired by the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. SCARDA will support work on vaccines for coronaviruses, influenza, Zika, dengue, Nipah, and smallpox, among others. In particular, the agency will provide $1.1 billion in grants to investigator-proposed research projects. “It is the first time Japan has awarded grants to cover development of vaccines” for neglected diseases, says Chieko Kai, a University of Tokyo virologist, who recently won a 2-year, $15 million SCARDA grant to develop a Nipah vaccine.

Nearly $400 million is going to new vaccine R&D centres at several universities. The flagship centre, the University of Tokyo Pandemic Preparedness, Infection, and Advanced Research Centre, aims to be “competitive at the top level of infectious disease research,” says Kawaoka, who heads the effort. Four centres at other universities will work on a range of topics, including vaccines for tropical diseases and coronavirus vaccines that can be sprayed into the throat or nostrils.

Whether the new SCARDA money will enable labs to hire and retain enough talent is an open question, especially given the uncertainty surrounding the initiative’s long-term funding. “It will take time and money to rebuild research teams, and they have to be maintained,” says Hiroaki Mitsuya, director general of the National Centre for Global Health and Medicine Research Institute. Mitsuya worries that in 5 years the government could have different priorities. Restoring Japan’s vaccine infrastructure, Mitsuya says, must start “with more funding and positions for entry-level researchers.”


Under a reorganisation announced this week, the United Kingdom will get a standalone ministry for science, innovation, and technology and its head will have a seat in the prime minister’s Cabinet. The ministry will be led by Michelle Donelan, previously the higher education minister.

The reshuffle—the latest of many under Conservative leadership since 2010—also creates separate ministries for energy and trade, which were previously combined with science. Commentators said the new structure could bring greater influence and funding to science, but cautioned that the separated ministries may now work less cohesively and compete for resources.


Lalita Panicker is Consulting Editor, Views and Editor, Insight, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

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