A COVID-style plan for dealing with bird flu is being drawn up by health officials, modelling what would happen if the virus starts spreading between humans.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says there is “no evidence so far that the virus is getting better at infecting humans or other mammals” but warned the high level of transmission in birds presents a “constant risk“.
To make sure the country is prepared for a possible bird flu outbreak in humans, health officials are modelling scenarios of human transmission.
It comes after an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died from bird flu. The girl’s father also tested positive for the virus but it is unclear whether he caught the virus from his daughter or through contact with an infected bird.
At least 11 other people in the country have also been tested.
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If this is an example of human-to-human transmission, it would be one of the first instances of that happening.
There has been some evidence of people catching the virus from family members or in healthcare setting, the UKHSA said, but no or little evidence of “sustained” transmission between humans.
The UKHSA is modelling what happens if that changes, looking at two scenarios: a mild scenario where the infection-fatality rate is similar to COVID, at about 0.25%, and a more severe scenario similar to the 1918 flu pandemic, where about 2.5% of people who caught the virus died.
That would mean under the mild scenario, one in 400 people with the virus would die, and under the severe scenario one in 40 infected people would die.
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Even with a fairly low infection-fatality rate, a severe scenario could lead to “significant behavioural differences relative to the recent pandemic experience”, the UKHSA said.
In light of the modelling, the UKHSA is looking at how it could detect outbreaks in humans, including using COVID-style lateral flow tests.
It is also developing a blood test that detects antibodies against the virus and analysis of the genetic mutations that would signal an increased risk to human health.
The world’s leading experts on influenza will meet on Friday to discuss the threat of bird flu to humans.
The group of scientists, regulators and vaccine manufacturers meets twice a year to decide which strain of seasonal flu to include in the vaccine for the upcoming winter season.
This meeting will also address the risk of the virus spilling over to humans and causing a pandemic.
The virus has already jumped from birds to otters, foxes and cats, while an outbreak at a mink farm prompted fears the virus was spreading between animals.
“We are more prepared (than for COVID), but even if we are more prepared, we are not yet prepared enough,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director of global infectious hazard preparedness, said ahead of the meeting.
“We need to really continue the efforts for a flu pandemic.”