The World Health Organization has warned the world must prepare for a potential human bird flu pandemic — after the strain jumped from birds to mammals.
Cases of the strain H5N1 have already been reported in otters, mink and foxes, sparking fears the virus is one step closer to sweeping into humans.
During a virtual briefing today, the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged nations to monitor infections in mammals closely.
He said the risk of the virus jumping to humans was still low, but we ‘cannot assume that will remain the case and we must prepare for any change in the status quo’.
H5N1 has previously been detected in people, but cases have been sporadic and closely linked to close contact with infected dead or live birds.
The virus does not infect humans easily or other mammals.
But reports of infections in mammals have raised concerns that the pathogen could gain mutations that make it easier for the virus to jump to humans, helping it to clear the biggest hurdle that has stopped it from sweeping the world.
Leading experts previously warned that the spread of bird flu poses a global risk until it is brought under control.
The US has faced a major outbreak of bird flu this year, with more than 58million poultry affected across nearly every state in the country and 6,100 in wild birds — approaching record levels for the country.
Experts have warned that outbreaks among mink could lead to a recombination event — when two viruses switch genetic material to make a new hybrid.
A similar process is thought to have caused the global 2009 swine flu crisis that infected millions across the planet.
The same biological phenomenon was also seen during the Covid pandemic, such as the so-called Deltacron — a recombination of Delta and Omicron, first detected in France last February.