A new case of bird flu has been discovered in China. Could that turn into another pandemic?

bird flu pandemic
Photo via Hans Splinter/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Reports of a new strain of bird flu cropping up in China is sparking fear of another pandemic.

A 41-year-old Chinese man is the first confirmed human to contract H10N3, according to China’s National Health Commission. No other cases have yet been identified, but experts say the case warrants careful monitoring due to the risk of a flu-related pandemic. 

The Chinese government has not announced how the man became infected, but experts say avian viruses rarely spread among humans. Those most likely to be infected by an avian virus are those who work in close contact with birds. While it is rare, bird flu could present a risk to humans if it were to mix with a human virus, according to Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

“If someone has human flu and is infected with bird flu, the two viruses can swap genetic material,” she told the New York Times. “That’s why you see the concern for pandemic flu arising in countries where humans and livestock have very close contact.”

Influenza viruses and coronaviruses differ in many ways, and the disease is unlikely to spread rapidly, but the World Health Organization (WHO) is still carefully monitoring the case. Contact tracing has not uncovered any other cases, and the man who fell ill has since recovered and is ready to be discharged from the hospital. 

There is still a minor risk of the new strain of bird flu turning into a pandemic, but rare cases of human infection with avian viruses are not uncommon, according to the WHO. “As long as avian influenza viruses circulate in poultry sporadic infection of avian influenza in humans is not surprising, which is a vivid reminder that the threat of an influenza pandemic is persistent,” the organization said in a statement. 

Still with more than 3.5 million dead because of the current coronavirus pandemic, making it No. 10 among the deadliest pandemics in history, it’s worth paying special attention to anything that could potentially start another worldwide shutdown.

Sources: New York Times, BBC

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