In the press

Mass testing for bird flu risks repeating Covid mistakes

Health authorities are motivated by the politics of fear and the illusion of control. Credit: Getty

Original Article

The spread of bird flu in the United States raised alarm bells this week in the media, the WHO, and scientists who claimed that rising infections in cattle and dairy workers are an ominous sign of an emerging human pandemic.

Articles from Scientific AmericanTimeThe ConversationFortune, and many others implored the US government and dairy sector to rapidly deploy mass testing and develop an assortment of biosecurity measures to “prevent” viral evolution and human-to-human transmission.

The EU commission reportedly signed a deal for 40 million human vaccine doses to protect farmworkers. And two dozen vaccine manufacturers are working on creating a bovine vaccine.

Yet, as with Covid, mainstream media and health authorities are fast becoming spreaders of misinformation themselves, motivated by the politics of fear, the illusion of control, and inherent biases in the industry of pandemic response.

Take a quote from notable science reporter Amy Maxman today in Scientific American: “To become a pandemic, the H5N1 bird flu virus would need to spread from person to person. The best way to keep tabs on that possibility is by testing people.”

Earlier this month, Deborah Birx, former Covid response coordinator under Trump, advocated for the mass weekly testing of “every cow” and “every dairy worker” in the United States. She claimed that America was repeating Covid-era mistakes by not ramping up testing to track asymptomatic and undetected cases.

Such a policy proposal, from America’s previous Covid coordinator and a veteran of the global health diplomatic corps in Washington, is concerning for a few reasons. First, at last count there were 87 million heads of cattle and calves in the United States. About nine million are milk cows, distributed in different herd sizes over about 25,000 farms and with over 100,000 dairy workers.

Birx, and others, appear to be reincarnating the infamous 2020 US strategy of “chasing the silent spread,” whereby asymptomatic Covid was used to justify expensive mass sentinel testing, environmental sampling (wastewater) as a proxy for human infection, and the erroneous use of mass contact tracing.

Yet another problem with the bird flu narrative, on repeat from Covid, is the misrepresentation of what we know about risk. The media likes to repeat the “fact” that there have been over 900 reported human cases of H5N1 since 1997, with a 50% mortality rate. Yet, this is absolutely not the real number of infections. Even within this highly selective data, most cases were reported prior to 2015. Given the huge scale of current spread and mortality in wild and domestic birds and mammals since 2021, including the slaughter of half-a-billion farmed poultry to try and control H5N1, the lack of reported human deaths is a good thing.

This week’s cycle of media articles is due to H5N1 being found in nearly 100 farms across 12 US states, as well as cats and mice. The (so far) three human cases had conjunctivitis, cough, and other flu-like symptoms and recovered. Anecdotal reports from dairy workers suggest much wider circulation of mild flu-like symptoms. Two mild cases were recently reported in children in Australia (H5N1) and India (H9N2).

In short, spillover events are much more widespread than our testing suggests and certainly not confined to the US dairy industry. Yet the fear narrative continues. Just last week, the international media jumped on news from the World Health Organization about what they called “the first death” from H5N2 bird flu in Mexico. Two days later, the Mexican Minister of Health hit back claiming that the WHO statement was “not accurate…and is pretty bad” since the 59-year old man had died from other unrelated causes. It was with H5N2 and not from H5N2.

Leaving aside the fact that the mass testing programme promoted by Birx and others is completely unrealistic (and undesirable), what would it most likely accomplish? What would happen when more H5N1 is inevitably found and some human-to-human transmission chains extend beyond the dairy industry and into the wider community?

As we learned during 2020-22, mass testing is not neutral. Now we risk turning back to the faulty logic and harmful knee-jerk reaction of the Covid-era. We must leave this behind — and make sure any legacy of chasing the asymptomatic spread approach to respiratory viruses, Covid or bird flu, should go with it.

Follow Kevin Bardosh on X (formerly Twitter) @KevinBardosh