Given how successfully right-wing media and characters have sown doubts about health care, medical research and vaccines, it’s probably a given that the next pandemic will be even worse than COVID-19 and even harder to bring under control.
Which is why these stories about avian flu moving into certain sub-human species of mammals so extraordinarily frightening.
Death can come swiftly—sometimes within a day or two of the infection’s start. Birds simply keel over as if they’ve been shot, their bodies dropping like rocks. On poultry farms, outbreaks can wipe out entire flocks in just two or three days. In wilder settings, locals have spotted bald eagles plummeting out of their nests, leaving shrieking chicks behind. By the time infected birds reach Hawkins in her clinic, “they’re usually almost dead,” she told me. “And we can’t figure out how to help them except to put them out of their misery.” Hawkins estimated that in the past few months alone, her team’s euthanasia rate has gone up by about 50 percent.
Mammals so far haven’t fared much better. Last spring, the corpse of a dolphin infected with the virus was found wedged into a canal in Florida—around the same time that Wisconsin locals happened upon litters of ailing fox kits, drooling, twitching, and struggling to stand in the hours before they seized and died. In the fall, three young, flu-stricken grizzlies in Montana were euthanized after researchers noticed that the disoriented animals had begun to go blind. Wendy Puryear, a molecular virologist at Tufts University, told me that seals sick with the virus will sometimes convulse so badly that they can barely hold their bodies straight. Every seal she’s seen that tested positive has ended up dead within days. This month, researchers in Peru reported that they were picking up the virus in some of the sea lions that have died by the hundreds along the country’s coast; a similar situation may now be playing out among a number of Scotland’s seals.
It’s hard to say why this outbreak is so much worse than the ones that came before. Microbial evolution may be one culprit: Flu viruses are particularly inclined to tweak their RNA code; when two genetically distinct versions of the pathogens wind up in the same cell, they can also swap bits of their genomes. This iteration of H5N1 may be particularly adept at sparking lethal disease—something Justin Brown, a veterinary pathologist at Penn State, thinks is quite likely, given how many animals have died. It may also be more easily exiting birds’ bodies in feces, or more efficiently entering cells in the airway or gut. “This particular virus seems to be better adapted to wild birds. I think that’s the key thing,” Stallknecht told me. As climate change alters migration schedules, and pushes certain avian species into more frequent contact with one another’s contaminated scat, the risks of intermingling are only growing. The greater the number of infections, the more animals will die. “It becomes a numbers game,” Stallknecht said.
Due to my age I’m in a high-risk group for any upper respiratory infection.
I suspect that, should something else not take me out sooner, my life is going to end during the next pandemic or two. Assuming it’s a pandemic of highest risk to older people and not, as with the 1918 flu pandemic, particularly dangerous to young adults.