Opinion: Proceed cautiously on new bird flu experiments

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Dave Dickey

There has been some devastating avian influenza (bird flu) outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years.

In 2015 an outbreak of subtype H5N2 bird flu required the culling of almost 50 million chickens and turkeys costing producers and providers in the big ag food chain $3.3 billion.

And not well reported is the bird flu infestation of 2017 – the largest since 2015  – has resulted in culling some 200,000  chickens in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

This includes the first outbreak of bird flu this year at a Tyson-contracted farm in Tennessee in March. Tyson is the largest chicken meat producer in the U.S.

All this to say that despite the best efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – and they’ve done plenty with a 2016 response plan – bird flu can crop up anytime, anywhere.

And that has scientists concerned. Very concerned.

While H5N2 bird flu easily spreads from bird to bird, it doesn’t spread from bird to human. However, bird flu has the potential to mutate into a deadly pandemic, where it may spread from bird to human … and ultimately, easily human to human.

Public health officials are closely monitoring what’s been happening in China this year where the strain H7N9 has infected more than 1,500 people with a 40 percent mortality rate.

H7N9 bird flu does not spread easily between people.  But it wouldn’t take much for that to change. In June, PLOS Pathogens reported that just three mutations in H7N9 bird flu could create the nightmare potential of human to human receptivity.

How bad could it get? Consider that in the early 1900s, a human H1 virus co-mingled with a bird flu virus. The result was the Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide and more than half a million in the U.-S.

Scientists say they need to conduct new experiments on H7N9 to learn more about how it might mutate into something deadly to humans.  And they’ve been mostly been at a standstill since a White House moratorium in 2014 ended federally funded research on the grounds that potentially creating a bird flu virus that can spread human to human wasn’t such a good idea.

But the Department of Health and Human Services is in the final leg of drafting new policy that will guide how bird flu experiments can take place in the future.

And there’s a raging debate among scientists about whether or not that is a good idea. Other nations are already conducting bird flu mutation experiments – the Netherlands, in particular.

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies where things go very badly. Think Contagion, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller (although I wasn’t too thrilled, more terrified) about the spread of a virus caused by fomites, and a less-than-stellar response to contain the disease.

That being said,it scares the crap out of me that somehow bird flu will find a way on its own to mutate to human-to-human infection. So let the experiments begin anew.

My advice – please do not mutate H7N9 in the lab if you can get the answers with something a little less risky.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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