Skip to main content

Bird flu could trigger the next pandemic

Matt Cardy/Getty

If you mention the threat of AI, says Devi Sridhar in The Guardian, people assume you’re talking about artificial intelligence. But there’s another AI that poses a “much more immediate” threat to humanity: avian influenza. On Tuesday, it was reported that two poultry workers in England had tested positive for H5N1, adding to a growing number of cases in mammals who have come into contact with infected birds. In January, 3,000 sea lions died in Peru after contracting the disease; a month earlier, 2,500 infected seals in Russia perished. There haven’t yet been any confirmed cases of transmission between mammals. But given recent research showing that H5N1 samples can spread efficiently between ferrets, it may only be a matter of time.

The disease is devastatingly contagious. Each bird can infect as many as 100 others; if you see a wild bird such as a duck or seagull, “it’s more likely than not” that they have the virus. Among poultry, the flu has a “near 100% fatality rate”, and scientists estimate that if it does hop to humans, between 50% and 60% of all those infected – including children – will die. While there are vaccines in the works, the only ones that can be mass-produced are created by incubating doses in chicken eggs – which wouldn’t be easy if poultry populations were wiped out by the disease. People may well be fatigued with government-backed vaccine development programmes after Covid. But if officials don’t act fast, this could become the “next human pandemic”.