We Just Learned Something Incredibly Important about Bird Flu
A new study explains it.
I try not to bombard everyone with posts, but this one feels important.
If you follow public health, you already know that bird flu has been spreading around the world and working its way into mammals. There have been several major outbreaks in seals, minks, and now cats. The most recent outbreak in cats has puzzled scientists, because they can’t figure out the source.
Now we know something.
A new study published in Nature has identified a gene in primates, humans in particular, that helps block avian flu viruses. This gene explains why bird flu is hitting so many other mammals first, sparing us.
It’s called BTN3A3.
As the authors explain, this gene is “expressed in human airways” and demonstrates “antiviral activity evolved in primates… at the early stages of the virus life cycle by inhibiting the avian IAV RNA replication.”
There’s more good news:
Most of us might’ve assumed that humanity has never faced a bird flu pandemic before, but the 1918 flu originated in birds.
We have some idea of what to expect.
Scientists can use this new genetic information to sequence current bird flu strains. They’ll know when it begins to evolve the capability to bypass our natural protection and start spreading from humans to humans. They could even analyze the probability before it happens and alert the public. Of course, we already know this strain has been adapting quickly to mammals.
Now here’s the realistic interpretation:
It’s trying to infect us.
There’s a very specific reason why there hasn’t been a bird flu pandemic yet. It’s not magic. It’s not like the virus hovers light years away. It’s everywhere by now. This BTN3A3 gene has been protecting us so far.
That won’t last forever.
History has shown us that bird flu viruses do eventually learn how to spread between humans. When they do, they cause catastrophic damage. So it’s nice that we already know what a contagious bird flu looks like in humans.
We have a good sense of how to prepare.
We don’t have to get hyperbolic about the threat. A virus doesn’t have to end civilization as we know it to kill tens of millions of people and ruin hundreds of millions of lives. As scientists and public health officials with a modicum of sanity tell us, we’re in poor shape to deal with a pandemic right now. Healthcare workers are burned out and exhausted. Many of the best and brightest have quit or retired. Our supply chains and labor force remain stretched.
Our immune systems are getting battered by Covid. According to the CDC, one in five Americans have compromised health now. If that weren’t enough, the public has been thoroughly deconditioned. Most of them aren’t going to respond to warnings until it’s too late. They haven’t been paying attention to climate science. They still think pandemics happen once a century.
We should be getting ready for this one.
It’s going to require the same tools.
We’ll want to do what we should’ve done with Covid: Step up our efforts to install effective clean air technologies in schools, offices, and public buildings. We should distribute N95 masks ahead of time and teach people how to use them. As we’ve said over and over, it’s cheaper than living with the economic fallout of infecting, disabling, and killing millions.
We need to get ahead of the media on this one. Some outlets have already started misrepresenting the facts, assuring the public they’ll never catch bird flu because they have a magic gene. That’s absolutely the wrong way to interpret the study, and it will hurt us in the long run.
The right interpretation: We should feel good knowing exactly what’s been guarding us from bird flu, and we should use that to our advantage.
It buys us some time.
There’s another takeaway from this study:
Pandemics and disasters don’t happen out of nowhere. There’s plenty of warnings and red flags. We don’t have to live in fear.
We just have to pay attention.
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