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USDA releases genetic data of bird flu after criticism from scientists

Concerns about the bird flu have grown in recent months as it has continued to decimate bird populations and spread to more mammals.
USDA releases genetic data of bird flu after criticism from scientists
Posted at 2:19 PM, Apr 22, 2024

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published genetic data from avian flu virus samples after scientists criticized the government agency for not having more public information to help them assess the risk of the ongoing outbreak. 

STAT News, a health news website produced by The Boston Globe, reported that calls for the U.S. government to release more information about the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, increased after it was first reported that a dairy cow herd in Texas had tested positive for the pathogen in March. 

While it’s not unusual for the bird flu to infect various mammals that have been exposed to infected birds, it is the first time it has been found in cattle, officials said. However, it does not appear to be as rapidly progressing and fatal in cattle as it is in birds. 

The USDA believes that dairy cows are contracting the virus from exposure to wild birds, but it has not ruled out cow-to-cow spread. 

Concerns about the bird flu have grown in recent months as it has continued to decimate bird populations across the country and spread to more mammal species, including an extremely rare case of it infecting a human who was working on the Texas dairy farm where the first cattle outbreak was recorded. 

Despite the rare occurrence, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization consider the public risk to be low, and the USDA said it does not believe there are changes to the virus that have made it more transmissible to humans. 

Texas health officials said the patient only reported having eye redness and is being treated with an antiviral drug. 

SEE MORE: Person in Texas diagnosed with bird flu after contact with cows

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is maintaining the resources about the outbreak, released 239 genetic sequences of H5N1 samples taken from chickens, dairy cattle, a blackbird, a grackle, a cat, a raccoon and a skunk on Sunday. 

“APHIS routinely publishes influenza genetic sequence data on GISAID (the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data); however, in the interest of public transparency and ensuring the scientific community has access to this information as quickly as possible to encourage disease research and development to benefit the U.S. dairy industry, APHIS is also rapidly sharing raw sequence data to the National Institute of Health’s National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information,” the agency said. 

The department had previously shared genetic sequences from the Texas dairy farm outbreak, but now 32 herds in eight states have confirmed cases of the virus. Still, the USDA is not mandating dairy producers test their herds and instead has been encouraging them to look out for symptoms and contact state veterinarians if there are signs. 

The CDC also published the genome sequence analysis from a specimen collected from the infected dairy farm worker in Texas at the beginning of April for scientists to access and analyze. 

So far, there haven’t been any notable impacts on the dairy industry or national milk supply because of the virus outbreak, according to the USDA. But the same can’t be said for the commercial poultry industry

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC continue to encourage consumers to drink pasteurized milk, which is heat-treated to eliminate pathogens, and the farms where cattle have tested positive for the virus have been barred from selling milk. 

There have not been any cases of the virus found in beef cattle, so there are no concerns about meat supply and safety in regards to the bird flu, the USDA said. 

SEE MORE: Bird flu is spreading to more farm animals. Are milk and eggs safe?

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