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Why you should be prepared but not scared of the bird flu

Black and white dairy cows stand lined up, some eating grass. A small black bird is standing facing the cows.
Rodrigo Abd
Dairy cattle feed at a farm on March 31, 2017, near Vado, N.M. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday, March 25, 2024, that milk from dairy cows in Texas and Kansas has tested positive for bird flu.

The world is currently in the grip of a zoonotic pandemic of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza, H5N1. Since 2022, this particular strain has killed countless millions of wild birds all over the world. It’s also been found in poultry raised for food, necessitating the killing of close to 100 million chickens and turkeys in the United States, alone.

Now H5N1 has reached the cattle barn, and farm workers.

The three farmworkers who have had confirmed H5N1 infections, worked closely with cattle and apparently picked up the virus from them. This viral interaction between species is concerning.

Each time it happens, it gives the virus opportunities to evolve into something that could not only infect a human, but could easily spread between humans, which could lead to an outbreak, an epidemic, and — potentially — another pandemic.

This is concerning because H5N1, like the COVID virus, is novel to the human immune system. Our immune systems have never seen it before, which means we have no immunity to it.

Our best hope, should H5N1 evolve into a virus that can easily spread from person to person, will be vaccines and therapeutics.

Luis Martinez-Sobrido is working on that. He is a molecular biologist, an expert in virology, vaccines and antiviral research, and a professor at Texas Biomedical Research Institution. His lab is also working with The Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response, an NIH funded international research network created to study influenza and combat influenza outbreaks.

Martinez-Sobrido’s lab is creating candidate vaccine viruses for H5N1, developing new vaccines, and testing therapeutics to make sure they’re effective against H5N1.

Bonnie Petrie of TPR’s Petrie Dish spoke with Martinez about bird flu and his work to combat the virus should it become a direct threat to humans.

Bonnie Petrie
Bonnie Petrie covers bioscience and medicine for Texas Public Radio.