The H5N1 avian influenza virus is now spreading at an alarming rate. The virus has been known for almost 30 years and it has occurred in birds in waves as epidemics, especially in Asia. During the last three years, the virus has been circulating in Europe as well, and infections in wild birds have spread strongly in the continent. H5N1 infections have also been discovered in wild mammals, and at the end of last year in Spain, also in farm minks. The virus can therefore be transmitted from birds to mammals.
At the moment, the genome of the H5N1 virus is closely monitored for mutations, and how it affects the spread routes of the virus. Fortunately, this is the reason why the E3 project was started in the first place and what the project has researched over the past two years: responding to pandemics.
From that angle, the situation is much better now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. We know how to prepare and focus on matters that are significant in terms of the spread of the disease, such as the continuous monitoring of the virus' ability to transform and the study of the routes of spread.
"Without the methods developed already in the E3 project, we would not be able to react at this speed to this situation, which at worst could potentially lead to a new pandemic," says Tarja Sironen, Finland's leading virologist (University of Helsinki) and Researcher of the E3 project.
"We know how to take samples in a variety of ways and find out the virus's routes of spread - and many different means of protection have also become familiar along the way."
The meaning of scientific knowledge is emphasized along with making quick decisions
Last year, in the E3 project, Sironen's research group studied the airborne spread of the COVID-19 virus in laboratory conditions among research animals.
These studies revealed that the virus spreads from one animal to another through the air. In Finland, we have a rare quality of multidisciplinary expertise, which has made unique virus research possible.
The E3 project has combined diagnostics of different pathogens, experimental and simulation studies of the routes of spread, risk assessments and various means of protection.
"In situations like this, the need for researched information is emphasized. It is very important that we get to research this right away, and that we have the methods ready. No one would have been able to acquire, learn and test the necessary equipment at this speed! In such a situation, you need to get that fast and agile research information to support early decision-making ", Sironen emphasizes.
Sironen is also part of the DURABLE research project, which includes avian influenza experts in Europe. When it was considered whether it is possible to find out if the virus spreads from one animal to another through the air, Sironen's research group was the only one who, thanks to the E3 project, was able to say "we have the capabilities of investigating if it is airborne".
"That's what we're studying now. We've collected samples from fur farms whose animals have been found to be infected with the H5N1 virus. We're investigating how the virus causes the disease, how a sick animal secretes the virus, where the virus is found in the environment, and how the virus got to the shelters in general."
Animals pose a risk to humans
It is currently known that avian flu can also be transmitted to humans through the faeces of a sick bird or being in contact with dead birds. So far, all those infected have been in contact with infected animals. The virus therefore does not spread from one person to another and human infections are rare.
The virus is mainly transmitted by contact and droplet infection. One can also get infected by eating the meat of an infected bird if the meat is not cooked completely.
"There are already such situations in the world, where pet cats have been infected with bird flu as a result of raw feeding."
"The spread of the human influenza virus has been studied a great deal, and it is known to also spread through the air in ferrets, which is the most used animal model for this virus. When the same experiments were done with bird flu, it was found that the virus does not spread through the air, but when the virus mutates, this is one of the properties that it may develop. This is what must be watched closely now."
Even if there is no pandemic, the economic consequences are significant
Even if the H5N1 virus were to remain only a problem in the animal world, it still has and will have a strong effect on humans. The mass deaths of birds and the challenges caused to animal production are significant already now.
"What if the virus gets into poultry and the animals have to be euthanized? That's a big economic loss. In America in 2022, outbreaks in poultry caused an estimated $3 billion in losses", Sironen adds.
Fortunately, bird flu is an influenza virus. Influenza vaccines are familiar, they are updated every year. There are medicines for avian influenza as well and the possibility of producing a vaccine quickly.
The E3 project started because of the coronavirus, but the goal has been to also prevent and control the spread of other pathogens and current and future pandemics.
In the project, more than 200 experts from different fields from both research institutes and companies are collaborating, which has enabled different ways to react, measure, monitor and create technologies to combat pandemics.
Read more about the H5N1 virus at the site of World Health Organization (WHO) or the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)