Russia on Saturday said its scientists had discovered the world’s first case of the H5N8 spread of bird flu from birds to humans and warned the World Health Organization.
In televised comments, the head of Russia’s Rospotrebnadzor health watchdog Anna Popova said scientists at Vektor’s laboratory had separated the genetic material of the strain from seven workers at a chicken farm in the south of the world. Russia, where a revolution among birds was recorded in December.
The workers did not suffer any adverse health effects, she said. They are believed to have caught the virus from chickens on the farm.
“Information on the world’s first case of bird flu (H5N8) transmission to humans has already been submitted to the World Health Organization,” Popova said.
There are different subtypes of avian flu viruses.
Although the extremely infectious strain of H5N8 is lethal to birds, it has never been reported to spread to humans.
Popova praised the “important scientific discovery”, saying “time will tell” whether the virus can go any further.
“Discovering these mutations when the virus has not yet been able to pass from person to person gives us all, the whole world, time to prepare for and respond to potential mutations appropriately and in a timely manner, “said Popova.
The WHO confirmed on Saturday that Russia had been notified of the development.
“We are in discussions with national authorities to gather more information and assess the health impact of this incident,” a spokesperson said.
“If proven, this is the first time H5N8 will affect humans.”
WHO confirmed that Russian workers were “asymptomatic” and that human-to-human transmission had not been reported.
People can be infected with avian and swine flu viruses, such as avian flu subtypes A (H5N1) and A (H7N9) and swine flu subtypes such as A (H1N1).
According to the WHO, humans are usually infected through direct contact with contaminated animals or environments, and transmission is not permanent among humans.
H5N1 in humans can cause severe illness and has a 60 percent mortality rate.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Gwenael Vourc’h, head of research at France’s National Institute of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, said flu viruses were known to be developing “very quickly” and that there may have been other issues besides those reported in Russia.
“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” she told AFP.
However, Francois Renaud, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), said he was not “particularly concerned” at this stage.
He said the coronavirus pandemic had taught countries to quickly deal with potential health risks. “Magical steps will be taken to stop immediately,” he said.
Avian flu has gone down in several European countries including France, where hundreds of thousands of birds have been culled to stop the disease.
Russia’s Vektor State Center for Virology and Biotechnology developed the discovery to chicken farm workers, one of several country’s coronavirus vaccines.
In Soviet times the laboratory, located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, conducted a secret biological weapons study.
They still collect viruses from Ebola to smallpox.
In televised comments, Vektor chief Rinat Maksyutov said the lab was ready to start developing test devices that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans. and to begin work on vaccinations.
The Soviet Union was a scientific powerhouse and Russia has sought to regain a leadership role in a vaccine investigation under President Vladimir Putin.
Russia registered the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in August, months before Western competitors and even before large-scale clinical trials.
After the first suspicion in the West, The Lancet a magazine this month published results showing Russia’s vaccine – named after Soviet-era satellite – is safe and effective.
© Agence France-Presse