Avian flu spread continues: U-M experts weigh in

May 24, 2024
Concept illustration of a chicken with virus particles in the background. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


Experts from the University of Michigan are available to discuss the evolving avian flu situation, which most recently led to a second person in the U.S. confirmed infected with the H5N1 virus, this one in Michigan.

Additionally, the federal government this week called for local and state agencies to continue monitoring for flu instead of the usual slowing of surveillance in the summer and to test samples for H5N1. U-M experts include:

Adam Lauring, professor of internal medicine and microbiology and immunology at the Medical School, can speak about the government’s tracking of flu cases and efforts to prevent the spread to animals and humans. Lauring is also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

His current research focuses on how the influenza virus evolves within people. He co-leads virus sequencing efforts as part of the Michigan Sequencing Academic Partnership for Public Health Innovation and Response.

“Given the importance of birds and pigs to influenza ecology—novel viruses cycle through this species and can emerge there) and in agriculture—there has been surveillance of these species for years. Over the last two years, there have been spillover events where the virus goes from birds to mammals, for example, mink or marine mammals, and therefore scientists have been tracking this,” Lauring said.

“The spill over into dairy cattle has triggered a significant multi-agency federal response given the importance of cattle to our food supply and the potential for more frequent contact with humans,” he said. “There is state and federal surveillance of cattle. There has been extensive testing of milk to ensure that pasteurization eliminates infectivity, and assessment of beef cattle—no virus detected there. Additionally, there is increased surveillance of dairy workers with additions of recommendations for PPE.”

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Timothy Cernak, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the College of Pharmacy and assistant professor of chemistry at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, researches and tests the effectiveness of drugs and vaccines and the changes in virus in response to medications. His lab also researches ways to develop medicines faster and that are safer.

“H5N1 continues to pop up around the U.S. The good news is that it still appears to only spread to humans who are exposed to a high viral load, as in farm workers exposed to bio fluids of infected animals,” he said. “Some H5N1 strains from wild birds have shown resistance developing in some older antivirals, but the good news is that flu vaccines should be effective here and to date those farm workers infected have been treatable with our current arsenal of antivirals.

“What we don’t want to see is mutations toward respiratory transmission and mutations that make our current drugs less efficacious.”

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Arnold Monto is a professor emeritus of epidemiology and global public health at the School of Public Health and co-director of the Michigan Center for Respiratory Virus Research and Response.

For seven decades, Monto has expanded the understanding and academic literature of respiratory disease and epidemiology research. In 1965, he worked on the Tecumseh Community Health Study, expanding the landmark study’s scope to look at the spread of respiratory infections in the 10,000 residents of Tecumseh, Michigan. During the 1968 influenza pandemic, Monto found that vaccinating school-aged children reduced infection in the entire community, an early demonstration of herd immunity.

“The new case in Michigan doesn’t really change much. We thought there would be more and the problem is that the more human cases there are, the more chances the virus has to mutate enough to transmit from human to human rather than animal to human, and we don’t think that will happen easily because the virus has been trying to do that for years,” Monto said.

He has been involved in evaluating a variety of strategies to control influenza and other respiratory diseases and has been involved in pandemic planning and emergency response to influenza and other respiratory virus outbreaks, including the 1968 Hong Kong influenza pandemic, avian influenza, SARS, MERS, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But on the other hand, we know that there are lethal cases of H5N1 occurring in Cambodia right now, and that virus is not much different from a molecular standpoint than the one in the dairy cows,” he said.

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