‘It’s a matter of when, not if’: DailyMail.com asked seven bird flu experts if the H5N1 case in Texas poses the risk of a future pandemic… here’s what they said

News that a Texan was infected with the H5N1 bird flu on Monday added a worrying wrinkle to a global outbreak that is moving closer to humans.

The patient was a dairy farmer who contracted the virus from an infected cow, making him the second American to become infected after someone in Colorado in 2022.

While there is no sign of person-to-person spread — a development that could signal the start of a human epidemic — experts say the ease with which the strain jumps between species increases the risk that it evolves and can infect us more easily.

This variant of H5N1 has been detected in almost every corner of the world since its emergence in 2020, from arid Antarctica to the depths of the ocean. But it is the developments that are taking place a little closer to home that are causing concern.

It’s been in American poultry farms, goats and now cows (not to mention a dog in Canada) for years. DailyMail.com spoke to seven infectious disease experts and virologists who have been tracking the H5N1 avian flu for years about what the development in Texas means.

Testing showed that an unknown number of cows have tested positive for Type A H5N1 bird flu in Texas, Kansas and New Mexico. Iowa is currently monitoring the situation as it is also a dairy-producing state. It comes after a goat in Minnesota tested positive last week. Bird flu has also been found in foxes, bobcats, striped skunks, raccoons and coyotes since the 2022 outbreak

Dr.  Leonard Mermel, an infectious disease expert in Rhode Island, warned that repeated infections in mammals increase the risk of the virus acquiring harmful mutations

Dr.  Diego Diel, from Cornell University, warned that cases highlighted bird flu's ability to spread to mammals

Dr. Leonard Mermel, an infectious disease expert in Rhode Island, warned that repeated infections in mammals increase the risk of the virus acquiring harmful mutations. Dr. Diego Diel, from Cornell University, warned that cases highlighted the ability of bird flu to spread to mammals

Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease expert at Mount Sinai, New York, warned: ‘It is absolutely true that H5N1 has the potential to cause a pandemic.

‘People who work with these animals have to be careful.

“The more this virus spreads, the more likely it is that it could become a strain that can mutate and spread from person to person.”

The H5N1 epidemic that spread around the world emerged in 2020 after a bird was infected with both avian flu from domestic poultry and a virus from wild birds.

During the infection, the two viruses met in the same cell and exchanged genes – in a process scientifically called ‘re-assortment’ – to create the new virus, which now had multiple properties that made it better at infecting bird cells.

It quickly spread around the world, with the first cases identified in Europe – before infections were also discovered in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Experts fear infections in cattle and other mammals could increase the risk of the virus adapting to spread among humans (stock image)

Experts fear infections in cattle and other mammals could increase the risk of the virus adapting to spread among humans (stock image)

Dr. Leonard Mermel, an infectious disease expert at Brown University in Rhode Island, said the fact that the disease was spreading among mammals “increased the risk” that the virus would evolve to infect humans.

“Viruses have multiple mutations in each replication cycle (each time they make copies of themselves),” he said.

‘Every time that process takes place, where the viruses multiply, there can be many mutated viruses that leave (an infected) cell to infect other cells.

‘You could just happen to have a mutation that allows it to bind to these mammalian cells, allowing it to then be passed from mammal to mammal (and possibly from human to human).’

While jumping between species carries the risk of a freak mutation, experts are particularly concerned about the virus entering one population: pigs.

Pigs have the same receptors in their lungs – called alpha 2, 6 – as humans and they can harbor both bird and human viruses at the same time.

Infections in pigs could be a warning sign that the virus has developed a mutation that allows it to bind to this receptor, and a sign that it could spread to humans.

There is also a risk of a pig being infected with a human flu virus and a bird flu virus at the same time, which could swap genes to create a new and potentially more dangerous virus.

In 2009, an outbreak of swine flu occurred when a pig was simultaneously infected with a human flu virus and a bird flu virus. This allowed the bird virus to use the blueprint of the human virus to spread between people.

The outbreak led to 60 million swine flu infections in humans, nearly 300,000 hospitalizations and an estimated 12,400 deaths in the US alone.

John Fulton, a pharmaceutical industry expert working on an avian flu vaccine, told DailyMail.com: “I think we’re well past ‘if’ and well on our way to when…” when asked if this H5N1 strain would cause an outbreak in humans. .

He has been working for years to develop a vaccine against bird flu, because the seasonal vaccines used to protect against human flu do not provide protection.

It will now take about 18 months for him to produce a new shot for poultry.

Even the experts who aren’t too concerned about the Texas case believe it could be symbolic that the virus is starting to become more dangerous to people.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, who has been monitoring bird flu for decades, said: “These cases are concerning and we will certainly be monitoring what happens with them.

“There will be bird flu pandemics, there’s no doubt about that.”

Adding a note of caution, he said: ‘But we don’t see any cases in pigs and pigs are the real bridge species for us because they have the same receptor sites in the lungs.’

Dr. Bill Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said: ‘Cases of bird flu occur periodically in humans, but human-to-human transmission is rare.

‘The genetic part of the virus that allows it to be easily transmitted from person to person is still missing.’