The pandemic of the future. What disease could we face in 20 years?

The bird flu virus that spread among cattle in America could be transmitted to humans. It is the alarm signal that even the Romanian specialists are sounding. How possible is it to face a new pandemic, explained to “Adevărul” the doctor Gindrovel Dumitra, coordinator of the vaccinology group within the National Society of Family Medicine.

In October 2005, the H5N1 virus also arrived in Romania. Photo source: archive

The bird flu virus has spread among cattle in the US, and they could infect humans through breathing, University of Wisconsin Madison researchers have warned. It is about the people who come into direct contact and over a long period of time with these animals. What is the proof that things can always degenerate? Four people are already infected, while the virus has been confirmed in more than 100 animal farms on the American continent. Moreover, a first global case of human death due to H5N2 bird flu was registered in Mexico, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in June.

Following a detailed analysis, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US concluded that virus samples taken from infected cows are able to attach to receptors found in cells in the human respiratory tract. The virus, experts say, does not spread very easily from animal to human, but even so, there are reasons for concern. Another specialist, Dr Ed Hutchinson of the Medical Research Council and Center for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, said that “the bird flu virus has already begun to acquire properties associated with the ability to spread through respiratory infections in humans. For now, there is no problem, there is no risk of human-to-human spread. But, if it willbreadth this, the new influenza virus would be extremely dangerous for humans”.

Therefore, it is only natural to ask how close we are to a new pandemic? “To take this into account, we should first ‘check’ some conditions”, doctor Gindrovel Dumitra, coordinator of the vaccinology group within the National Society of Family Medicine, told “Adevărul”.

Who is actually getting bird flu? Doctor: “Not the birds!”

“Right now, there are more than 5,000 influenza-like viruses in the avian world that have the potential to cross into the human species in the near or distant future. It is a matter of time. This is how pandemics happen. Of course, with some frequency. An increasing frequency, because nowadays an infected person who is in Hong Kong tomorrow may be in New York or Rome. The probability of spreading viruses is therefore very high. But what we need to know is that influenza viruses have some receptors that bind in the human species and in the avian species. Those that are now within the avian species do not transfer to humans.” the doctor also specified.

Then how come there are still cases of illness among humans? There is an explanation, continues the specialist. He stated that the virus does not transfer from birds to humans. There is usually a third party producing the mix. An intermediate host. What this means? It means that the animal takes an avian virus and a human virus and then modifies them. It results in a new virus, aggressive like that of the avian species and transmissible like that of the human species. “Usually the “mixer” is the pig. In the present case – cattle. At the time the mixing took place, people who are in close contact with the animals can get sick. But, in order to talk about an epidemic or pandemic there must be another condition: the disease should be transmitted from person to person. Which, for now, is not happening. But, be careful! We can always expect such a scenario,” warns Gindrovel Dumitra.

“God rolls the dice…”

The doctor refers to the Covid pandemic and recalls the initial spread of the virus. “In 2002, coronavirus was spread by bats, but man got sick from pangolin. The latter was the intermediate host. Then we have MERS ie syndrome respiratory from the Middle East. Here the coronavirus is transmitted from camels, the intermediate host. But it is not transmitted between people. This is why we don’t have a MERS pandemic. Here’s the poultry.. the same. It is not transmitted from person to person, but God rolls the dice..We will never know what will happen“, says the doctor. “In order to have an avian flu pandemic, this condition must be met, namely that the virus be transmitted between humans”.

The virus is very unlikely to be transmitted through infested cow’s milk

Cattle that have come into contact with the bird flu virus can transmit it to humans through breathing, through the air, and to a lesser extent through milk that reaches store shelves. For now. “The influenza virus is a virus with respiratory transmission and not with digestive transmission. To be transmitted through the digestive tract, it would have to undergo major changes. It’s unlikely, but there remains a possibility. Because in the evolution of the human species, this will probably happen as well“.

For now, however, people can only get sick if they are in direct contact with cattle. Among them, farmers and their families. But, at the moment, we are only talking about an alarm signal.

When will we have a bird flu vaccine?

We will have a bird flu vaccine when the virus is transmitted from human to human. “We cannot make a vaccine to prevent an epidemic if the virus is not transmissible between humans. Instead, a vaccine can be made to protect humans if they come into contact with the intermediate host. The vaccine could be produced in two, three months, because the technology exists, but why vaccinate ourselves en masse if we are not in danger?“, the doctor asks rhetorically.

It’s true, until the bird flu virus spreads from human to human we are safe. The problem, experts say, is that anything can happen at any time. “We have the experience of the past. And we know that once every 10-25 years we face something like this. It is very possible that at some point we will witness a repeat of the experience we had during the pandemic of COVID“, says Dr. Gindrovel Dumitra.