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The takahē was chosen for an avian influenza vaccine trial (Image: Getty)
The takahē was chosen for an avian influenza vaccine trial (Image: Getty)

The BulletinMay 8, 2024

How the lessons from Covid-19 could help us prepare for bird flu

The takahē was chosen for an avian influenza vaccine trial (Image: Getty)
The takahē was chosen for an avian influenza vaccine trial (Image: Getty)

Stewart Sowman-Lund looks at the growing concern around the world in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

What’s all this?

When Covid-19 arrived on our shores in early 2020, some argued we were too slow, or crucially, ill-prepared for a pandemic. So today we’re going to take a look at bird flu (or highly pathogenic avian influenza), the threat it could pose to New Zealand, and how we can be ready for its possible arrival. On The Detail this week, reporter Marc Daalder said bird flu – also known as H5N1 – looks to be the most likely illness “that could potentially become a pandemic or an epidemic among humans”. That’s because the latest mutation of the virus has made the jump to cows in the United States (and various other mammals elsewhere), and appears to be transferring directly between cattle without the involvement of an infected bird. That poses a possible threat to us, too. So far, there’s at least one case of a human contracting the disease after contact with cattle. All of this is rather unexpected, infectious diseases researcher Richard Webby told RNZ. “It’s almost like the Crusaders losing five in a row. Had you asked me six weeks ago what the chance [was] of finding this virus in cows, I would have said none. So it’s a completely new event for us.” While bird flu hasn’t reached our shores, Otago University professor Jemma Geoghegan explained in this Newsroom Q&A that Oceania is the last continent that’s yet to see a case. “Every time the virus gets into a mammal, it gives it an opportunity to evolve and get better at infecting mammals. This is something scientists… are closely monitoring,” she said.

Are we at risk?

According to Geoghegan, the risk of person-to-person transmission has increased because the virus is now spreading from cow to cow – and cows, like us, are mammals. But there is no evidence of this happening yet. This piece from The Conversation explains why the risk to humans – at this point – is low. But that doesn’t make the threat any less worrying, as Richard Rennie wrote in this opinion piece for Farmers Weekly. “Up until now bird flu has seemed a few steps removed from the human health risk,” he said. “But with it jumping to humanity’s main milk source, the risks not only to human health but to economic wellbeing are considerably sharper.” The most obvious sign of H5N1 is dead birds or wildlife, which people should avoid touching. As Crux reported, the Ministry of Primary Industries has been investigating the cause of death of 100 birds in Wānaka, ultimately ruling out avian flu. Nevertheless, it signals the heightened awareness of the disease, even if it hasn’t reached our shores. In the rare instances avian flu has made it to humans, the mortality rate is reported to be 50%. If it does arrive in New Zealand, Biosecurity NZ would lead a coordinated response with the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Health.

What about our wildlife?

Clearly, given the name of this virus, our native wildlife is at even higher risk. “This highly contagious viral infection can affect all species of birds both wild and domestic,” notes DOC in an article about the disease. “It is likely to affect colony nesting birds such as red and black-billed gulls, gannets, terns and other seabirds.” DOC’s ecology technical adviser Bruce McKinlay told The Bulletin that vaccination could be an effective tool during an outbreak. Five native species have been selected for an avian influenza vaccination trial, due to their “critical conservation status and reliance on captive breeding for species survival”. These are the: kakī (black stilt), takahē, kākāpō, tūturuatu (shore plover), and red-crowned kākāriki (as a surrogate species for kākāriki karaka/orange-fronted parakeet). “The trial began in January and vaccinations have now been completed for all five species,” McKinlay said. “The birds are all in good health, and none have shown any adverse reactions to the vaccine.”

The lessons from Covid-19

It’s unsurprising, given it’s less than three years since our last pandemic lockdown, that comparisons between Covid-19 and bird flu are being made – there remains heightened awareness of any illness. In one piece, on Forbes, it’s noted that the decades-long knowledge of bird flu should mean we’re better prepared for a worst-case scenario. But also in the US, Politico has warned that hospitals may have failed to learn the lessons from the last pandemic. Otago University’s Jemma Geoghegan told The Bulletin we can learn a lot from Covid-19. “One is that we had to massively ramp up our workforce across all areas in a very short amount of time,” she said. While we cannot continue this level of capacity during the “inter-pandemic” period, she added, we risk losing specific skills if capabilities aren’t maintained. It was also important to maintain strong collaborative links between universities, Crown Research Institutes and government agencies as people from across different sectors bring unique expertise. “We established many of those collaborative links during Covid and they should be valued and maintained.” There’s also the issue of a human vaccine. The Herald’s Jamie Morton (paywalled) wrote that this would be easier than during the Covid pandemic, as most developed nations, New Zealand included, have stockpiled doses closely matched to avian flu.

While we’re here, some Covid news

Tony Blakely, chair of the Royal Commission into New Zealand’s pandemic response (which you can read more about here), provided an update on the inquiry yesterday afternoon. He made two points of note. Firstly, a clarification on the extent to which vaccine effectiveness forms a part of the inquiry. In short, he said it would be difficult to consider the use of mandates without also looking at vaccines overall. “The ethical case for – say – vaccine mandates is stronger if vaccines also stop transmission,” he wrote. Looking at the efficacy of the vaccine was a pledge inked into the coalition deal between National and NZ First, as this Newshub report from last year explained. Blakely also signalled that future public engagement could be in the pipeline if the government does opt to alter the terms of reference, as it has previously indicated it might. Before the weekend, the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan reported that Pharmac and Health NZ were considering the future of vaccine accessibility and whether funding would continue – though no changes are imminent.

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