In late January came another reminder of the sturdiness of avian flu. Britain was hit by its first major outbreak in domestic poultry when 2,600 turkeys died (Times of London) at a farm run by one the country’s biggest producers. Roughly 160,000 birds were gassed to contain the disease while authorities sought answers about the source. Although the spread of bird flu can often be traced to migrating wild waterfowl, the British outbreak is likely linked to a poultry plant in Hungary owned by the same company, according to the UK’s Department for Food, Environment, and Rural Affairs.
This flu season in the northern hemisphere, the disease also has appeared (NewScientist.com) in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Russia, Egypt, China, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Avian flu continues its global spread at immense economic costs, with 200 million birds culled as a result of outbreaks since 2003, according to an August report (PDF) by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Joshua Kurlantzick, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns that, “just because [U.S] news magazines have forgotten about avian flu, and the disease has not yet swept through America, does not mean it has gone away.”
So far the highly lethal bird flu, H5N1, is not easily transmittable from birds to humans. But Margaret Chan, the new director of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned in January, “As long as the virus continues to circulate in birds, the threat of a pandemic will persist.”
H5N1 continues to evolve, reported the New England Journal of Medicine in a November article showing a map of the disease’s spread and recommending “robust plans” for a pandemic. Laurie Garrett, CFR’s global health fellow, says in this podcast that the world may be in a better position to handle a bird flu pandemic than two years ago, but that we still do not have “a toolkit that can stop this virus from circulating.”
While bird flu claims more lives, the issue of intellectual property rights in relation to research could serve as an obstacle to discovering vaccines for emerging strains. In a controversial move, Indonesia stopped sharing bird flu samples isolated with the WHO in 2006 and signed an agreement (Reuters) with U.S. pharmaceutical company Baxter to develop an avian flu vaccine. A Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy report says “the episode highlights the fragile and increasingly contentious system” used by WHO to identify viruses.
Jakarta’s health ministry says the agreement with Baxter will ensure Indonesia has enough bird flu vaccines in the case of an epidemic while the WHO system allows industrialized nations to develop and stockpile vaccines for profit. Indonesia has suffered the world’s highest number of human deaths related to bird flu—63 of the global toll of 166. China, which recorded thirteen confirmed bird flu deaths in 2006, temporarily stopped sharing samples after Beijing claimed U.S. researchers who published a paper on avian flu had infringed (Standard) on intellectual property rights by failing to acknowledge their Chinese counterparts.
But even if a vaccine is developed the continued evolution and potential scale of pandemic bird flu would likely render it useless from stopping millions of deaths if the disease becomes easily transmissible from one human to another. Infectious disease expert Stephen S. Morse says, “Our capacity both nationally and globally is so small in terms of making enough vaccines fast enough.”