Russia said on Saturday that its scientists had detected the world’s first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of bird flu from birds to humans and had alerted the World Health Organization.
In televised remarks, the head of Russia’s health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, Anna Popova, said scientists from the Vektor lab had isolated the genetic material from the strain from seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia, where it was recorded. an outbreak among birds in December.
The workers suffered no serious health consequences, he added. They are believed to have contracted the virus from poultry on the farm.
“Information on the world’s first case of avian flu (H5N8) transmission to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organization,” Popova said.
There are different subtypes of avian influenza viruses.
While the highly contagious strain H5N8 is lethal to birds, it has never before been reported to have spread to humans.
Popova praised “the important scientific discovery” and said “time will tell” if the virus can continue to mutate.
“The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not yet acquired the ability to transmit from human to human gives everyone, the entire world, time to prepare for potential mutations and react in an appropriate and timely manner,” Popova said.
The WHO confirmed on Saturday that Russia had notified it of the development.
“We are in talks with national authorities to gather more information and evaluate the public health impact of this event,” said a spokesperson.
“If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 has infected people.”
WHO stressed that Russian workers were “asymptomatic” and that no person-to-person transmission had been reported.
People can be infected with avian and swine influenza viruses, such as avian flu subtypes A (H5N1) and A (H7N9) and swine flu subtypes such as A (H1N1).
According to the WHO, people generally become infected through direct contact with animals or contaminated environments, and there is no sustained human-to-human transmission.
H5N1 in people can cause serious illness and has a death rate of 60 percent.
‘The tip of the iceberg’
Gwenael Vourc’h, head of research at France’s National Institute of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, said influenza viruses are known to evolve “quite rapidly” and that there may have been other cases in addition to those reported in Russia. .
“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” he told AFP.
Francois Renaud, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), said however that he was “not particularly concerned” at this stage.
He added that the coronavirus pandemic had taught countries to react quickly to potential health threats. “Draconian steps will be taken to immediately stop the outbreak,” he said.
Bird flu has swept through several European countries, including France, where hundreds of thousands of birds have been slaughtered to stop the infection.
Russia’s Vektor State Center for Virology and Biotechnology, which detected transmission to workers on poultry farms, also developed one of the country’s several coronavirus vaccines.
In the Soviet era, the laboratory, located in Koltsovo on the outskirts of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, carried out secret biological weapons research.
It still stocks viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.
In televised remarks, Vektor boss Rinat Maksyutov said the lab was ready to start developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and begin work on a vaccine.
The Soviet Union was a scientific powerhouse and Russia has sought to regain a leading role in vaccine research under President Vladimir Putin.
Russia registered the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in August, months before Western competitors and even before large-scale clinical trials.
After initial skepticism in the West, The lancet The magazine published results this month showing that the Russian vaccine, named after the Soviet-era satellite, is safe and effective.
© Agence France-Presse