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Will bird flu spark the next pandemic?

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A dramatic series of outbreaks is leading to concerns that a mutation could eventually hit humans and make COVID-19 seem mild.

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(AL Jazeera) – It is a bloody trail: Avian flu has killed 15 million domestic birds and led to the culling of an unprecedented 193 million more since October 2021. The rampant virus has jumped from Europe and Asia to North America — spreading shortly afterwards to bird populations in South and Central America.

And it is no longer restricted to birds. In the United States, the list of wild mammals either killed by or culled over avian influenza outbreaks is growing: grizzly bears in Nebraska and Montana, a red fox in Montana, six skunks and raccoons in Oregon, a Kodiak bear in Alaska and more.

Then in January, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported avian influenza in a young girl in Ecuador, the first such case ever in Latin America.

The story of these outbreaks is playing out like the opening shots of a pandemic movie — with the scene-stealer from last October in Galicia, Spain. There, week by week, the mortality rate in a mink farm of 50,000 animals rose. Coming soon after another outbreak on the coast near Coruña, which left 27 seabirds sick or dead, avian influenza became a suspect. But sequencing revealed something more sinister: a mutation that had enabled the first-ever large-scale case of direct mammal-to-mammal transmission of bird flu.

There have only been five human bird flu cases in the last year. But past human cases of H5N1 avian influenza have had a 53 percent mortality, according to the WHO.

With the virus driving poultry shortages, killing droves of wild birds, and increasingly spilling over to mammals, the situation begs an overarching question: Could avian influenza evolve from an ecological disaster to a full-blown pandemic?

Read more.

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