Federal Experts Talk Bird Flu ‘What Ifs’ in WebMD Live Event

Federal Experts Talk Bird Flu ‘What Ifs’ in WebMD Live Event

May 16, 2024 – Multiple U.S. agencies are working to contain the recent bird flu outbreak among cattle to prevent further spread to humans (beyond one case reported in early April) and use what we learned before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic to keep farm workers and the general public safe. 

Fingers crossed, the bird flu will be contained and peter out. Or the outbreak could continue to spread among dairy cattle and other animals, threatening the health and livelihoods of farmers and others who work with livestock.

Or the virus could change in a way that makes it easier to infect and spread among people. If this happens, the worst-case scenario could be a new influenza pandemic. 

With so many unknowns, WebMD brought together experts from four federal agencies to talk prevention, monitoring, and what the “what ifs” of bird flu might look like.

Communication with the public “about what we know, what we don’t know, and ways you and your family can stay safe is a priority for us at CDC,” said Nirav D. Shah, MD, JD, the CDC’s principal deputy director. “We at the federal level are responding, and we want the public to be following along.”

People should consult the websites for the CDC, FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR) for updates.  

It is essential to not only stay informed, but to seek trusted sources of information, Shah said during “Bird Flu 2024 – What You Need to Know,” an online briefing jointly sponsored by the CDC and WebMD. 

An ‘Experimental Hamburger’

If one take-home message emerged from the event, it was that the threat to the general public remains low. 

The retail milk supply is safe, although consuming raw or unpasteurized milk is not recommended. “While commercial milk supply is safe, we strongly advise against drinking raw milk,” said Donald A. Prater, DVM, acting director for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

As for other foods, thoroughly cooked eggs are less risky than raw eggs, and the nation’s beef supply remains free of the virus as well.

For years, federal inspectors have purchased and tested meat at retail stores, said Eric Deeble, DVM, USDA deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Congressional Relations. So far, H5N1, the virus behind bird flu, has not been detected in beef. 

The USDA took testing a step further and recently cooked ground beef from dairy cows in their lab. Using what Deeble described as an “experimental hamburger,” the agency showed cooking beef to 165 F or higher kills the virus if it ever becomes necessary.

The federal government now requires all cattle be tested and be free of bird flu virus before crossing any state lines. The government is also reimbursing farmers for veterinary care and loss of business related to the outbreak, and supply personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks, and face shields to workers. 

Vaccination Not Recommended Now

Federal scientists know enough about H5N1 virus to create vaccines against it quickly if the need arises. It’s more about planning ahead at this point. “Vaccines are not part of our response right now,” said David Boucher, PhD, director of infectious diseases preparedness and response at the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response. 

If the virus changes and becomes a bigger threat to people, “we have the building blocks to produce a vaccine,” Boucher added. 

An event attendee asked if the seasonal flu shot offers any protection. “Unfortunately, the flu shot you got last year does not provide great protection from the avian flu,” Shah responded. “It might do a little bit … but that is the vaccine for seasonal flu. This is something more novel.”

Treatments Stockpiled and Ready

Antiviral medications, which if given early in the course of bird flu infection could shorten the severity or duration of illness, are available now, Shah said. The dairy farmer who was infected with bird flu earlier this year responded to oseltamivir (Tamiflu) treatment, for example. 

When it comes to bird flu symptoms, the fact that the only infected person reported so far this year developed pink eye, also known as conjunctivitis, is interesting, Shah said. Officials would have expected to see more typical seasonal flu symptoms, he added. 

“Influenza is not a new virus,” Boucher said. “With this strain of influenza, we are not seeing any genetic markers associated with resistance to antivirals. That means the antivirals we take for seasonal influenza would also be available if needed to treat H5N1.”

ASPR has stockpiled Tamiflu and three other antivirals. “We do have tens of millions of courses that can be distributed around the country if we need them,” he added.

“Influenza is an enemy we know well,” Boucher said. That is why “we have antivirals ready to go now and many types of PPE.”

Science in Action

The feds intend to stay on the case. They will continue to monitor emergency department visits, lab test orders, and wastewater samples for any changes suggesting a human pandemic risk is growing.

“While we’ve learned a great deal, there are still many things we do not know,” Deeble said. 

Shah added, “As in any outbreak, this is an evolving situation and things can change. What you are seeing now is science in action.”

For the latest updates on bird flu in the United States, visit the CDC’s H5N1 Bird Flu: Current Situation Summary website. 

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