FDA preparing to respond to bird flu in humans, but risk remains low: 5 updates

The FDA is preparing to respond should bird flu begin circulating more widely among humans, though the threat the disease currently poses to humans remains low, the agency's commissioner Robert Califf, MD, told senators May 8. 

"We got to have testing," Dr. Califf told the Senate Appropriations Committee, The Hill reported. "[We] got to have antivirals, and we need to have a vaccine ready to go. So we've been busy, getting prepared for if the virus does mutate in a way that jumps into humans on a larger level." 

So far, there has been just one documented human infection that health officials believe is tied to the current outbreak among dairy cattle. The case was confirmed April 1 in a Texas dairy farm worker. Health officials have reiterated that there is currently no evidence that the H5N1 bird flu strain infecting dairy cattle in at least nine states is spreading between humans. 

Four more updates: 

  • On May 10, the federal government announced it will compensate farmers whose dairy herds have been affected by the outbreak. Through the Department of Agriculture, farmers will be paid to support biosecurity plans on their farms over the next 120 days, with a maximum value of $28,000 per farm. HHS also said $101 million in new funding will support treatment efforts, additional testing, genomic surveillance and contract tracing efforts through the CDC. 

  • The CDC has also asked state health officials to make personal protective equipment available to workers on dairy farms, poultry farms and slaughterhouses. 

  • Hospital leaders have said they worry the nation's healthcare system wouldn't be able to respond adequately if H5N1 did start to affect humans more widely. In a May 3 Politico report, leaders expressed some of the same fears they faced in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: hurdles in accessing adequate testing supplies, antivirals and PPE, and an overburdened workforce. 

  • There are millions of vaccine doses believed to be well-matched to H5N1 in government stockpiles that federal officials say would be ready to distribute quickly, should they be needed. Antivirals are also on hand, and manufacturing could be bolstered if needed, CDC officials have said. 

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