By Daniel R. Lucey MD, MPH, FIDSA
The Russian News Agency TASS reported on Feb. 20 that Russia had shared the genetic sequence of the mutated H5N8 avian influenza viruses that in December infected seven minimally symptomatic poultry farm workers in Astrakhan, southern Russia. The Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) is the international database where the sequence of this mutated H5N8 virus was deposited. H5N8 viruses had never before been reported to infect humans anywhere despite many outbreaks in avian species over four decades including in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Through access to this sequence of the mutated virus in GISAID, other nations have the ability to follow Russia’s declared intention to develop human laboratory tests and vaccines for this novel H5N8 virus, as has been done by some nations for H5N1 avian flu, H7N9 avian flu virus, and SARS-CoV-2.
TASS reported: “Russia has sent to the World Health Organization (WHO) the information on the first case of humans being infected with the novel bird flu, Anna Popova said. ‘The data on the first case of the infection of humans with the A(H5N8) flu have already been sent to the World Health Organization. This happened a few days ago, as soon as we became absolutely confident in our results,’ she said.
” ‘The Vector Center of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing has already added to the international GISAID database the data of a whole genome sequencing of the А(H5N8) virus with those mutations that allowed it to cross the interspecies barrier,’ she added.”
“Cases of transmission of the novel bird flu virus between humans have not been registered yet, the head of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing said.
” ‘So far we can see that the novel agent of the A(H5N8) bird flu is capable of transmission from birds to humans – it crossed the interspecies barrier. Yet as of today, this version of a flu virus is not transmitted from human to human,’ she said.
“According to the head of the sanitary watchdog, ‘time will tell how soon subsequent mutations will allow it to cross this barrier as well.’
“This scientific discovery of our researchers, of the Vector Center of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing, allows us to warn scientists, practitioners and people worldwide to undertake the necessary measures in time and counteract the new threat on a significantly different and new high level of counteraction and prevention. Today we have time to do so,” the top sanitary doctor emphasized.”
Daniel Lucey, M.D. MPH, FIDSA, FACP, is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Infectious Disease adjunct Professor at Georgetown Medical Center, senior scholar at Georgetown Law, Anthropology Research Associate at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America Global Health Committee. He served as a volunteer to outbreaks overseas including hands-on Ebola patient care in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Doctors without Borders) 2014, MERS 2013, SARS 2003, as well as HIV, H5N1, Zika, yellow Fever, and pneumonic plague 2017 (with WHO/USAID/CDC). Since Jan. 6, 2020 he has contributed over 75 posts to Science Speaks on COVID-19 and traveled to China in February 2020. He initially proposed, then fundraised and helped design the content for 2018-2022 Smithsonian Exhibition on Epidemics due to zoonotic viruses. From 1982-1988 he trained at University of California San Francisco and Harvard and was an attending physician at the NIH (NIAID) in the 1990s while in the US Public Health Service.