Russia has discovered the first human cases of the highly infectious H5N8 bird flu virus at a poultry farm in the south of the country.
Scientists identified seven workers who were infected with the virus in December. It is the first time this strain of avian influenza – which is deadly to birds – has been identified in humans.
Moscow today announced it has informed the World Health Organization about the jump of H5N8 from birds to humans.
The H5N8 strain of bird flu was detected in poultry in the UK in December 2020 according to the European Food Safety Authority. Hundreds of thousands of birds – including turkeys – were slaughtered in a bid to stall the spread of the virus.
The highly infectious disease – which has an avian mortality rate up to 100 per cent – has also been detected in migratory and wild birds across the continent.
Russia has announced it has identified its first human cases of the H5N8 bird flu virus in humans. Here birds are culled in Glinik, Poland after being infected with the disease
Thousands of birds were culled after they developed the highly infections H5N8 virus
Seven people tested positive for the highly infectious H5N8 virus in Southern Russia in December. Health officials claimed there has not been any human to human transmission of the virus yet
Outbreaks of H5N8 in poultry farms have been reported across Europe, although Russia is the only country to have identified the virus in humans.
Anna Popova, head of consumer health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, said on Saturday.
Russia reported the case to the WHO ‘several days ago, just as we became absolutely certain of our results,’ Popova said on Rossiya 24 state TV.
There was no sign of transmission between humans so far, she added.
Previously another strain of bird flu – H5N1 – has been known to spread to humans.
Seven workers at a poultry plant in Russia’s south were infected with the H5N8 strain when there was an outbreak at the plant in December, she said, adding that they feel fine now.
‘This situation did not develop further,’ Popova said.
There are different subtypes of avian influenza viruses.
While the highly contagious strain H5N8 is lethal for birds it has never before been reported to have spread to humans.
Popova praised ‘the important scientific discovery,’ saying ‘time will tell’ if the virus can further mutate.
‘The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion,’ Popova said.
People can get infected with avian and swine influenza viruses, such as bird flu subtypes H5N1 and H7N9 and swine flu subtypes such as H1N1.
According to the WHO, people usually get infected through direct contact with animals or contaminated environments, and there is no sustained transmission among humans.
H5N1 in people can cause severe disease and has a 60 per cent mortality rate.
Located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center has developed one of Russia’s several coronavirus vaccines.
In the Soviet era the top-secret lab conducted secret biological weapons research and still stockpiles viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.
Speaking in televised remarks, Vektor head Rinat Maksyutov said the lab was ready to begin developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and to begin work on a vaccine.
The Soviet Union was a scientific powerhouse and Russia has sought to reclaim a leadership role in vaccine research under President Vladimir Putin.
Russia registered coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V in August, months before Western competitors and even before large-scale clinical trials.
After initial scepticism in the West, the Lancet journal this month published results showing the Russian vaccine – named after the Soviet-era satellite – to be safe and effective.
Avian flu has raged in several European countries including France, where hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled to stop the infection.
The European Food Safety Authority has been tracking the spread of the H5N8 virus across the continent.
Officials found the new virus in poultry in Poland in December 2019.
Within three months the virus had spread across the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania.
Between March and June 2020, the disease had spread to Bulgaria.
According to the EFSA, at the end of October 2020, H5N8 was detected in wild birds in the Netherlands.
The EFSA said: ‘Since then and until the end of 2020, a high number of dead and sick wild birds, mostly of migratory species, were found to be infected with HPAI viruses of subtypes H5N8, H5N5, H5N1 and H5N3 being detected by several EU countries and the United Kingdom.
‘The largest number of cases in wild birds were reported in the Northern part of Germany, in Denmark and in the Netherlands.
‘Between October and end of December 2020, the disease was also confirmed in poultry in Croatia, Denmark, France, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.’
Some 14,000 turkeys were slaughtered earlier this month in the German state of Brandenburg after they were infected with the strain.
A series of outbreaks of bird flu have been reported in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in past months with wild birds suspected to be spreading the disease.
Sweden planned to cull around 1.3 million chickens after bird flu was found on a farm in the country, Sweden’s Board of Agriculture.