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New research shows that a devastating new virus is one of the worst outbreaks in history: '[This is] uncharted territory'

"It's causing a high amount of mortality."

Avian flu is causing unprecedented death in wild species

Photo Credit: iStock

COVID-19 isn't the only virus that has significantly impacted the planet in the past few years. Avian flu (H5N1), which has devastated the poultry industry and caused a 70% increase in egg prices in the past year, has impacted more than just domesticated species. 

What's happening? 

New research indicates that the flu, which has killed off hundreds of thousands of wild birds, is one of the most devastating disease outbreaks in history. Vox reported that the disease has spread across five continents and hundreds of species, including endangered ones like the California condor, which classifies it as a "panzootic" — a pandemic among animals. 

Avian flu typically causes death only among domesticated birds, like ducks and chickens, killing up to 90% of the flock within an outbreak. But this time, it's different. 

"What we're seeing right now is uncharted territory," Andrew Ramey, a wildlife geneticist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told Vox. The biology of the virus has caused it to attack wild species and even mammals. 

"It's causing a high amount of mortality in a huge breadth of wild birds, which is not something that has been seen before," commented Wendy Puryear, a molecular virologist at Tufts University. This is because the current avian flu virus has adapted to spread disease outside poultry farms and infect even more species in its wake. 

Why is avian flu concerning? 

The current avian flu outbreak, which emerged in North America in the winter of 2021, has killed or forced farmers to cull upward of half a billion birds worldwide. The number of wild birds affected by the outbreak is more difficult to track since governments lack the resources to test every dead bird. "We haven't seen these kinds of numbers with an influenza outbreak in wild birds previously, ever," Puryear said to Vox.

The avian flu is particularly problematic for biologists studying endangered and small bird populations, such as Michigan's threatened Caspian terns and the California condor. Nearly half of all bird species globally are declining due to habitat loss or change, predation, and invasive species. The avian flu is just another hurdle to restoring their population numbers. 

Scientists are also wary of the potential impact on humans since the virus already shows massive evolutionary potential. Although in its current form, the H5N1 is unlikely to cause a pandemic, it can mutate and could potentially infect humans later in time, Vox reported.

What is being done to combat avian flu? 

More effort is being taken to track the spread of the avian flu worldwide diligently and to sample regions where the flu may be present. In turn, the surveillance should give poultry farmers more heads-up for when the flu is expected in the area so that appropriate biosecurity measures can be taken. 

Birders and naturalists can also play a role in tracking the spread of the virus. Citizen science programs like iNaturalist have a feature to track dead birds; the information is then shared with appropriate organizations. 

The biggest question, though, is how the poultry industry will adapt to the virus and persistent biosecurity threats in the coming years. Compact rearing operations only serve to spread viruses uncontrollably — and it's likely the direct fault of increased demand for meat and eggs and unsustainable poultry production, as an expert cited in the Vox article suggested.

"It's useful to remember that wild birds are the victims here," Nichola Hill, an infectious disease ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said, as reported by Vox. "They spread HPAI but are not the original source. My motto has become: Bird flu sucks, blame chicken nuggets.

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