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H5N1 Virus Spreads Rapidly Among Mammals, Threatening Global Health and Biodiversity

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A recent comprehensive study has revealed a startling expansion in the range of the highly pathogenic avian influenza A virus subtype H5N1, more commonly known as the H5N1 virus.

This virus, known for its devastating impact on bird populations, has shown a significant increase in mammal infections, raising concerns about potential risks to biodiversity and human health.

The study, compared mammal infections during the current panzootic (2020–2023) with previous infection waves (2003–2019). Remarkably, the current panzootic has seen over 48 mammal species from 26 countries affected by the H5N1 virus, a considerable increase from earlier periods. This expansion is not just in the number of species but also in geographic distribution, with reports coming from continents like North and South America, previously less affected.

The findings were published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The study suggests that close contact with infected birds, including their ingestion, is the primary source of mammal infection. However, there is growing evidence of mammal-to-mammal transmission, a deeply concerning development that points towards potential mutations enabling the virus to replicate more effectively in mammals.

Several mutations have been identified in the H5N1 virus infecting mammals. Two notable mutations, PB2-E627K and PB2-D701N, known for increasing the virus’s virulence and replication efficiency in mammals, have been frequently observed. These adaptations could have severe implications, indicating the virus’s increased ability to infect mammals and possibly humans.

Infected mammals have predominantly displayed neurological and respiratory symptoms, with common necropsy findings including pneumonia and encephalitis. These findings suggest the virus’s strong neurotropism in mammals, mirroring its effects in birds.

The virus’s expansion to new species and regions poses a significant threat to global biodiversity, particularly concerning endangered and vulnerable species. The study also highlights the potential risks to human health, as evidenced by human cases of H5N1 infection. While no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission exists, the possibility of such a scenario, given the virus’s evolving nature, cannot be ignored.

This situation calls for immediate international collaboration and increased surveillance. Sharing genomic data and information about affected species is crucial to assess and mitigate the risks to biodiversity and human health. Additionally, it underscores the need to reevaluate human, domestic animal, and wildlife interactions to prevent future outbreaks of such dangerous pathogens.

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