‘The Next Mass Extinction?’

source: cnn.com (contributed by FAN, Bill Amshey |  image: pexels.com


Bird flu is back. With a large outbreak still unfolding, a New York Review of Books essay by Oliver Wang asks if this particular strain, H5N1, could cause “the next mass extinction.”
Word of the outbreak in animals spread last summer, Wang writes, recounting eerie mass deaths of seals, sea lions, and birds on South American coasts. “By the time I spoke to [Argentine veterinarian Marcela] Uhart, the breeding season in Patagonia had ended. Over 17,000 baby elephant seals—96 percent or more of the juveniles in the region—were estimated to have died, as well as more than 500,000 birds. In some areas there were no longer any organisms to infect. Still, Uhart told me, she saw sick and dead animals on each visit to the beach: a sea lion, a duck, a tern. ‘My suspicion is that the virus will linger on,’ she said. ‘We just don’t know whether it will continue to cause epidemic outbreaks, or whether it will just trickle in like it is now.’”

H5N1 was discovered in China in 1996, Wang notes; 18 people reportedly caught it, and six died. Still, it does not appear to spread among humans too easily. In a new episode of his “Chasing Life” podcast, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta puts the risk to humans in proportion: “Now, I want to be clear on something. The federal agencies that are monitoring the situation say that this version of H5N1 does not appear to be a threat to humans at this moment. There’s only one confirmed case so far, and it’s a person in Texas who had direct exposure to dairy cattle. The person’s symptoms are considered pretty mild. Basically, it was conjunctivitis or pinkeye.”
Still, some are voicing concern. At The Atlantic, Katherine J. Wu writes that the US should be well prepared to fight a bird-flu outbreak, given recent experiences with Covid-19. “Yet the U.S. is struggling to mount an appropriate response. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s alertness to infectious disease remains high. But both federal action and public attention are focusing on the wrong aspects of avian flu and other pressing infectious dangers, including outbreaks of measles within U.S. borders and epidemics of mosquito-borne pathogens abroad.” At The New York Times, columnist Zeynep Tufecki wrote last week: “The H5N1 outbreak, already a devastating crisis for cattle farmers and their herds, has the potential to turn into an enormous tragedy for the rest of us. But having spent the past two weeks trying to get answers from our nation’s public health authorities, I’m shocked by how little they seem to know about what’s going on and how little of what they do know is being shared in a timely manner.”