The bird flu outbreak is the deadliest one in almost 10 years—which has helped cause egg prices to steeply rise—and while infection in humans is rare, some experts are gravely concerned it could eventually make the leap and spread among humans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bird flu is caused by infection of avian influenza A viruses and typically affects aquatic birds (like ducks, pelicans and swans), but can also affect domestic poultry (like chicken and turkey) and other animals, including humans.
As of February 1, the CDC reports the current outbreak has led to one case of human infection (which happened in April 2022), 6,111 wild birds with the disease and over 58 million poultry birds affected—and cases in birds have been reported in every state.
There is no evidence the one human infection spread to anyone else, but when humans have been infected by animals, the virus is deadly, as 56% of the reported cases in humans ended in fatality, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus is passed via contact with nasal secretions, feces and saliva of infected animals and through contact with surfaces infected birds have touched.
Although wild birds have long been infecting poultry, the disease’s spread to migratory birds has raised concern that it could mutate into a new variant and pass among people, since migratory birds are able to spread it more widely and to more animals.
In October 2022, the disease began spreading among minks at a mink farm in Spain, marking the first time the virus mutated to favor mammal-to-mammal transmission, according to Science.
“The continuous circulation of the virus poses great risks and may result in more spillover events in mammals,” Isabella Monne, a veterinarian at IZSVe, an institute with the Italian National Public Health Service, told the Bulletin. “A virus that is able to transmit to mammals needs to be stopped before it may become a matter of public health concern, as we learnt from the SARS-CoV2 lesson.”
Symptoms In Humans
According to guidelines issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for animal handlers, signs of bird flu include difficulty breathing, vomiting, fever, cough, diarrhea, sore throat, eye infection, muscle aches, abdominal pain and pneumonia or other severe respiratory infections. The CDC states lab testing is needed to diagnose bird flu in humans and cannot be done by symptoms alone as they mimic symptoms of other diseases and infections. Physicians diagnose bird flu by swabbing the nose or throat, and the results are more accurate if done within the first few days of the illness. The lower respiratory tract (i.e. the lungs, bronchi and windpipes) may be tested in severely ill patients for diagnoses.
How To Stay Safe
As of January, only 240 cases of bird flu in humans have been reported worldwide since 2003, according to WHO. The only human case found in the U.S. was reported in Colorado in April 2022, and the patient recovered after a few days. They were treated with oseltamivir, an antiviral flu medication. To avoid infection, the CDC recommends avoiding direct contact with wild birds, reporting dead birds that appear to be sick to authorities, safely preparing poultry and cooking it all the way through and getting a yearly flu vaccination. Bird owners and hunters should use protective gear like gloves and N95 masks; wash their hands thoroughly; avoid touching the nose, mouth and eyes after coming into contact with birds and change their clothes before coming in contact with any bird.
Are Bird Flu Vaccines Available?
There are a few vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Adjuvented, manufactured by ID Biomedical Corporation was approved by the FDA in 2013 for use in those 18 years and older who are at an increased risk of exposure. Manufactured by Seqirus, Audenz was FDA approved in 2020 and can be used in people six months and older for protection against H5N1. However, the U.S. has a small stockpile of H5N1 and H7N9 bird flu vaccines, so if an outbreak were to happen among humans, the amount of vaccines would not be enough to withstand the outbreak. There are concerns that once the disease mutates into new variants, old stockpiled vaccines may not be as effective. However, a 2019 study found H5N1 vaccines made in 2004 were still effective 12 years later. A separate study in 2017 found H5N1 vaccines made in 2004 and 2005 protected against the H5N2 virus in ferrets in 2014.
A 6-Month Delay After Outbreak?
The government plans to mass produce vaccines once an outbreak occurs, which can take at least six months to create enough for the entire population. A majority of the approved vaccines are created by incubating doses in chicken eggs, but the disease’s rate of fatality among poultry poses an issue for these vaccines. The makers of Audenz, the only non-egg-based FDA approved H5N1 vaccine, expect to have 150 million vaccines ready within six months of an announcement of a bird flu pandemic. However, as the New York Times pointed out, there are seven billion people in the world. This means only 2% of the world’s population will receive the Audenz vaccine within the first six months of a potential pandemic. Scientists and researchers are attempting to get mRNA-based influenza vaccines FDA approved, similar to Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid vaccines, because mRNA vaccines take less time to produce.
Effect On Egg Prices
The disease is very contagious among birds. Although certain species like ducks may not get sick, bird flu can be extremely deadly for domesticated birds like chickens, with a mortality rate between 90% and 100%. Millions of egg-laying hens have been affected by the bird flu, resulting in an egg shortage. More than 43 million hens died by the end of December 2022 due to the bird flu or as a result of depopulation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It found the average egg price during the week of Christmas 2022 was 210% higher than the average the same time a year before. Although inflation does play a part in the rise in egg prices, the impact of the bird flu is even bigger, causing the average cost of a dozen eggs in California to climb to $5.02. “Avian flu has been an economic disaster for the business and the consumer,” investment banker Walter Kunish, who tracks the market for HTS Commodities, told Forbes. Chickens used for meat are not as affected by this disease, so the price of chicken meat hasn’t drastically changed. However, according to Amy Hagerman, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in agricultural economics, egg-laying hens are more at risk. “For whatever reason, turkeys and layer birds tend to be more susceptible” to the virus, she told NPR.
Why Are Egg Prices Still So High? It’s Not The Reason You Think (Forbes)
Egg Prices Rose 59% In 2022—And One Group Accuses Egg Suppliers Of ‘Foul Play’ (Forbes)
What we know about the deadliest U.S. bird flu outbreak in history (NPR)
This Thanksgiving, Be Grateful The Turkey On Your Table Avoided Avian Flu (Forbes)
An Even Deadlier Pandemic Could Soon Be Here (New York Times)