No, bird flu is not the next COVID-19

·4-min read

Reports from China of the first human case of H10N3, a rare strain of avian flu, seem to be stoking fears that the next big pandemic may be underway — and it's not difficult to understand why. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the globe, infecting 171 million people worldwide and killing 3.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University. But while that virus also originated in animals, experts tell Yahoo Life that the two have little else in common and that the chances of H10N3 spreading further are minimal. 

Dr. Pritish K. Tosh, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, says the fact that H10N3 has spread to a human isn't immediately alarming. "People are now hyper-aware of transmission to humans of zoonotic infections," Tosh tells Yahoo Life. "But these sort of things happen with relative frequency, considering the billions of people would live in the world and the billions of animals everywhere."

The case was identified in a 41-year-old man in China's eastern province who was admitted to the hospital in late April and tested positive for the new strain through genetic sequencing on May 28. Specific details about his symptoms have not been released, but cases of avian flu can cause a range of symptoms — from coughing and a sore throat to abdominal pain and vomiting. 

Thus far, contact tracing has revealed no additional human cases of the virus, suggesting that H10N3 may not be capable of spreading from human to human. "We look out for [viruses] that can cross the species barrier and start to infect humans," says Tosh. "But we worry more about infections stemming from animals that get into humans and become transmissible between humans."

The first human case of H10N3, a strain of avian flu, has some worried that the next pandemic is looming. Here's why experts aren't concerned. (Photo: Getty Images)
The first human case of H10N3, a strain of avian flu, has some worried that the next pandemic is looming. Here's why experts aren't concerned. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention writes that human cases of avian flu are rare and that the virus traditionally "occur[s] naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species." While typically contained to animals, the CDC adds that "sporadic" human infections have been identified after "prolonged and close contact with infected sick or dead birds."

Technically speaking, the virus is carried through the bird's "saliva, mucous and feces" and can cause infection in humans when enough of the viral particles enter a person's mouth, nose or eyes. Tosh says that's likely what occurred. "Birds are a reservoir for a ton of influenza, so if you have somebody really close contact with an infected bird ... they can get infected," he says. "The bigger concern is whether this will infect another person as a result of casual contact and at this point, it doesn't look like that's happened."

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, is similarly optimistic."We know that bird flu strains can occasionally get into a human being — particularly if that person has very close contact with poultry, chickens, ducks and the like," Schaffner tells Yahoo Life. "The trick is, they don't usually have the capacity — fortunately — of being easily transmitted from person to person. And so it's kind of a dead end. The bird flu virus gets into a person but usually doesn't go beyond that because it doesn't have the genetic capacity to be transmitted readily from person to person."

Schaffner says it's not a bad thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone hyper-alert but says in this case it's not necessary. "Since there's no evidence of person-to-person transmission, I think this is of great interest to the virologists and the public health people, but not to the general public," says Schaffner. Tosh echoes his thoughts. "This happens all the time," he says, referring to viruses jumping to humans. "I think the only reason you and I are talking about it is because of COVID; it's made everyone jumpy." 

Both said that even if the new strain does spread from human to human, existing medicine could fight it successfully. "[It] can be treated with our antivirals," says Schaffner. In fact, the man found to be infected with the virus strain in China has already been successfully treated and released from the hospital, and none of his contacts have been found to be carrying the disease. 

Given this, Schaffner says the discussion around the virus strain should be considered a step In the right direction. "It is good news," says Schaffner. "It shows that our surveillance system out there looking for odd influenza strains that might affect humans is working." 

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