Spreading Its Wings
It's only a matter of time before Bird flu reaches the United States. Can we stop the killer virus?
Steven Hinrichs delights in watching the sandhill cranes that soar along Nebraska's Platte River each March on their spring migration north. This year, that delight has turned to dread. Hinrichs directs the University of Nebraska's Center for Biosecurity, and he knows that birds can bring not only beauty but also death. "I don't think it's a coincidence," he says, that the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide, originated nearby.
Nebraska is on the famed Central Flyway, a route that millions of birds follow each year as they migrate from southern wintering grounds north to Alaska and the Arctic to breed. While there, the birds often mingle with birds from Asia, where H5N1 avian flu, widely regarded as the bug most likely to mutate and spark a human pandemic, is rampant. When the sandhills return in the fall, Hinrichs wonders, "what will they bring back?"
He's not the only one asking that question. David Nabarro, the United Nations' bird flu czar, said last week that he expects bird flu to reach the Americas in a migratory bird in the next six to 12 months. Federal agencies announced ramped-up efforts to detect H5N1 in wild birds. "We expect H5N1 to arrive in the United States," Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns told U.S. News last week. "If migratory birds can spread it, and we're heading into spring, we need to be prepared." The goal is to create a system to detect the virus's entry into North America early on. With more notice, infectious disease specialists hope they can slow the contagion among wild birds and poultry, thus reducing odds that it will jump to humans or, in the worst case, mutate and gain the ability to spread from human to human, setting off a deadly pandemic. Even without a pandemic, the advent of H5N1 could have enormous economic impact. Although only one commercial poultry farm in Europe has been infected, poultry sales there have plummeted as much as 70 percent in the past month--even though eating cooked chicken doesn't pose any risk.
Starting in April, researchers from several federal agencies will test roughly 100,000 birds, dead and alive, as well as bird feces, in Alaska, Hawaii, and the lower 48. The survey was launched in 1996; this year's endeavor will test eight times as many birds as in the previous years combined. The samples will be run through a network of 39 federal, state, and university laboratories equipped to do rapid polymerase-chain-reaction testing, which copies bits of DNA, and can handle 18,000 samples a day, part of a national laboratory upgrade funded by post-9/11 federal bioterrorism programs.
Natural step. "There's little question in my mind that we will at some point see a wild bird [with H5N1] enter our domain," says Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, who convened summits last week with officials in North Dakota and South Dakota to discuss pandemic flu preparations. "We don't view that as a crisis; we see that as a natural step along the path. It would not be unusual, seeing what's happening in the rest of the world. "As part of its pandemic flu precautions, the United States is buying 19.5 million courses of antiviral drugs, but no one knows if they will work against H5N1. The feds are also testing experimental vaccines, but because domestic vaccine production facilities are lacking, it will take at least six months from the start of a pandemic to make significant amounts. Thus, the hope that surveillance will bring early warning and more time to mount a response.