Concern mounts over potential ‘new human pandemic’ after avian flu mutation raises the alarm

Thousands of southern elephant seal pups at Peninsula Valdés in Argentina died from an avian flu mutation. File picture: Pexels

Thousands of southern elephant seal pups at Peninsula Valdés in Argentina died from an avian flu mutation. File picture: Pexels

Published Feb 7, 2024


A mutation of avian flu is raising serious concerns about a potential new human pandemic, as the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain has now become transmissible between mammals.

This concern follows a recent outbreak of avian influenza, which resulted in the near-complete mortality of the southern elephant seal pup population at Peninsula Valdés in Argentina.

"The mass mortality also raises serious concerns that the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain has mutated and now become transmissible between mammals, bringing the virus a step closer to sparking a new human pandemic," stated the global animal welfare organisation Four Paws.

Shocking data from the World Health Organization reveals a 50% mortality rate in humans infected with avian flu.

Historically, avian flu has only been transmitted from birds to other species. However, the staggering mortality of seal pups, with limited contact to birds, suggests that transmission now occurs between mammals.

"This mutation might lead to unprecedented consequences, posing a severe threat to animal and human health, bringing us one step closer to the next pandemic," warned Luciana D'Abramo, chief development officer at Four Paws.

Four Paws urgently calls for international efforts on pandemic prevention to address the intensification of farming.

Wendla Beyer, policy officer at Four Paws, described factory farming as a "hotbed for pandemics." Beyer added, "In spite of the devastating effects of avian influenza on animals and people and the threat of a new pandemic, there are no strategies in place to address the underlying problem that caused highly pathogenic avian influenza to spiral out of control: intensive farming."

According to Four Paws, data suggests that the intensification of farming since 1940 has been linked to more than half of all zoonotic diseases in humans.

The excessive number of animals in factory farms and the cramped, unhygienic conditions are major contributors to the transmission, circulation, and mutation of avian influenza viruses. Transitioning to smaller farms with higher animal welfare standards can lower disease risks, limit culling, reduce animal suffering, and minimise financial loss for farmers.

According to a UN study, three out of four emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they are transmissible between animals and humans.

"To protect animal and human health, we need to drastically reduce intensive animal farming. We need to reshape farming and reframe our understanding of health, recognising that human, animal, and environmental health are intrinsically interdependent. We cannot treat human health in isolation," emphasised Beyer.

In response to the decimation of the southern elephant seal pup population, Four Paws strongly advocates for a focus on One Health in the international instrument for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.

"The world urgently needs effective global solutions addressing the root causes of the problem. The One Health approach should be strongly anchored in the Pandemic Treaty to avoid and mitigate future suffering," concluded Beyer.