Governments are not doing enough to prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic among humans, a public health expert has said.  

As two people in the UK were confirmed to have contracted the potentially deadly H5N1 virus in the UK, Professor Devi Sridhar - chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh – said scientists around the globe were becoming aware there are enough “concerning signals” that action should already be happening. 

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said yesterday that bird flu has been detected in two poultry workers in England, though there are no signs of human-to-human transmission. 

The cases are believed to be linked to exposure to sick birds on a single poultry farm where the two people were known to have recently worked. 

READ MORE: Bird flu infection confirmed in two poultry workers in England

Prof Sridhar said that the virus had become endemic in most wild bird populations, and had caused “huge problems" for the domestic poultry industry. 

It has also spread among mammal populations, with devastating effects among sea lions in Peru and Caspian Seals in Russia. 

The Herald:

Prof Devi Sridhar

Last month a pet dog in Canada died of H5N1, and scientists in that country have found it can spread among ferrets with deadly consequences.  

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Prof Sridhar said: “Since November, the signals emerging across the world continue to be worrying.  

“Normally, even if an animal catches H5N1 from a bird, it can’t pass it to other mammals. This limits its spread. But the large number of cases in these outbreaks suggest the possibility of mammal-to-mammal transmission, although this hasn’t been confirmed yet by genetic sequencing.  

“A more likely hypothesis is that these outbreaks are groups of animals feeding on infected birds. It is not yet 100 per cent clear what’s happening.” 

READ MORE: Bass Rock gannets reveal unusual side-effect of surviving avian flu

The public health expert said that three areas were key to getting ahead of any potential spread of the virus, which is estimated to be 50-60% fatal.  

She wrote that surveillance and monitoring of birds and animals susceptible to the virus was needed, along with testing and the preparation of vaccines and anti-viral medicine. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already developed an H5N1 vaccine, and shared the data with manufacturers. But stockpiling has been slow to occur and has been hampered by a lack of chicken eggs needed to incubate doses, ironically caused by the spread of the virus.  

The Herald:

Effective anti-viral medicine has also been produced, but again global stocks are limited and fall far short of what would be required should a full pandemic occur. 

Prof Sridhar wrote: “All of these issues are solvable with precise planning, collaboration across countries, scientific ingenuity and good leadership.  

“With post Covid-19 fatigue, the bigger problem is bringing the public along and communicating the facts so that they are trusted and believed. With so much – often understandable – mistrust in our current political leadership, authorities like chief medical officers and independent government advisers become crucial. 

“At the moment most governments aren’t paying attention to bird flu: they’re more interested in another AI (artificial intelligence) rather than this AI (avian influenza), but the avian influenza threat is real, and needs much more immediate attention and preparation.”