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New System to Assess Pandemic Risks of Influenza Viruses

New System to Assess Pandemic Risks of Influenza Viruses

United States: Animal influenza viruses, such as swine and avian flu, present significant hazards to humans, particularly within agrarian and veterinary sectors. Recently, influenza viruses have also been identified in bovine populations, contaminating equipment and milk, leading to infections among agricultural laborers.

Though person-to-person transmission is not yet occurring, understanding the pandemic potential of these zoonotic influenza viruses is crucial for disease containment. Now, a pioneering system developed by eminent virologists aims to identify the pandemic risk of viruses to facilitate early intervention, according to medical-xpress.com.

A recent study in Nature Communications, led by Dr Seema Lakdawala, a virology expert at Emory University School of Medicine, examined the transmission of swine flu viruses using a ferret model. Despite prior immunity to seasonal flu, ferrets contracted the virus, indicating that humans, who are exposed to seasonal flu viruses from a young age, are also susceptible to novel influenza strains. Dr Lakdawala expressed concern over this, especially in light of the rapid spread of the latest avian flu strain, H5N1, among dairy cattle herds.

“Each novel pandemic emerges within the context of pre-existing immunity,” says Dr Lakdawala. “However, the CDC and WHO currently do not incorporate pre-existing immunity in their assessments of emerging pandemic threats. Hence, we have developed a triage system that integrates this aspect into the risk assessment process.”

To augment the existing risk assessment tools of the CDC and WHO, Dr Lakdawala and her team devised a triage system that allows researchers to characterize the pandemic potential of emerging influenza threats using well-defined pandemic virus characteristics.

The study further emphasizes the need for ongoing surveillance to capture zoonotic events—diseases that transfer from animals to humans. Moreover, enhancing public health campaigns to vaccinate swine, cattle, and humans against the swine H1N2 virus is essential for curbing the spread of disease, as highlighted by medical-xpress.com.

Importance of the Research

As the avian flu H5N1 continues to disseminate widely among migratory birds, poultry, dairy cattle, and even cats, it is imperative to better delineate the pandemic risk to humans. Dr. Lakdawala and her team are leveraging their pandemic preparedness triage system to assess the risk posed by current avian and cattle H5N1 viruses.

“We aim to establish a system for cataloging and characterizing influenza pandemic threats as they emerge,” says Dr Lakdawala. “We anticipate that our tools will significantly influence how we characterize emerging pandemic viruses.”

The pandemic risk assessment tools also apply to the transmission dynamics of viruses within groups of animals, such as dairy cattle. A study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases by Dr Lakdawala’s team observed that unpasteurized milk stabilizes the H5 virus in the environment, allowing it to remain infectious on milking equipment for hours. This may explain how the virus is transmitted between cows on the same farm.

The research suggests that personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields, masks, and eye protection, is necessary to reduce the spillover of H5N1 from dairy cows to humans.

As people attend agricultural fairs during the summer months, there is an increased risk of virus transmission from cows and pigs to children and adults. Dr Lakdawala emphasizes the need for public health awareness and concern about respiratory infections in these settings. Veterinarians and farm workers should also have access to appropriate PPE and vaccination opportunities to protect themselves from these viruses, as per medical-xpress.com.

“Pandemic preparedness involves everyone, not just scientists but the general public as well,” says Dr Lakdawala. “To stay safe this summer, it’s crucial to wash hands frequently and minimize contact with livestock and birds whenever possible. This is a significant step everyone can take to help curb the spread of H5N1.”

Detailed Findings

In the Nature Communications study, the team closely examined swine flu H1N2 and H1N1—two predominant swine virus lineages in the US that have caused sporadic human infections. The triage system analyzed molecular features such as environmental stability, immunity against the virus in human sera across different age groups, transmission to immune animals, and the capability of naturally infected ferrets to transmit the virus.

The data revealed that the H1N2 virus strain tested poses a higher pandemic risk than the H1N1 strain. However, the severity of the disease in ferrets with prior human seasonal influenza virus immunity was lower, suggesting that this virus may cause less severe illness in the human population.

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