Mayo Clinic considers development of avian flu test, monitors potential of human outbreak

While acknowledging the risk of a human-to-human outbreak of avian flu is currently low, Matthew Binnicker, PhD, director of clinical virology at Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, isn't taking any chances.

Dr. Binnicker said since there is a confirmed large outbreak in birds, and a yet-unknown understanding of how far an outbreak can cross over into humans, the next step is to decide if an avian flu test should be developed now — in advance of a possible outbreak, according to a March 13 statement from the Mayo Clinic.

"If an outbreak or pandemic occurs a year from now — or 10 years from now — we want to have the ability to tell our physicians, 'You have access to a test that can diagnose your patients with this specific strain of avian influenza,'" he said.

The Mayo Clinic confirmed Dr. Binnicker is in contact with public health leaders to determine if testing strategies should be developed now to detect avian flu infection in humans.

"The primary concern is that humans wouldn't have existing immunity to a strain that's more adapted to wildlife such as birds and other mammals, and so the virus could cause more severe disease if it gains the ability to spread efficiently from person-to-person," Dr. Binnicker said in the statement.

Bruce Farber, MD, chief of public health and epidemiology officer at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y., told Becker's on Feb. 14 bird flu has the potential to pose a serious threat to humans. 

"Bird flu could make COVID look like a walk in the park. The mortality rate for bird flu is up to 50 percent in humans," he said, acknowledging it doesn't "spread very well among humans."

However, he said, since it does spread from birds to other mammals, "we would be very foolish if we were not keeping a very close eye on flu variants." 

The Mayo Clinic's action on bird flu was spurred, in part, by a Feb. 23 statement from the World Health Organization, which pointed to two diagnosed cases of avian influenza A (H5N1) in Cambodia, including the death of an infected young girl. Since that statement was released, other instances of humans contracting the virus have been reported in China.

"Since the virus continues to be detected in poultry populations, further human cases can be expected," the WHO said, calling the situation "worrying." 

The WHO said it is further researching the sources of the two confirmed cases in Cambodia. These are the first reported cases in humans in that country since 2014.

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