COVID – Bird flu virus that devastated Europe

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption “If we’re going to manage pandemics effectively we have to understand their origins and where they might reemerge.”

Scientists are looking at the historical associations between bird flu viruses and outbreaks in animals.

Not only that, scientists at the Centre for Infection and Immunity (CoI) in London are working with scientists from China to try to get the viruses on to poultry farms.

To help make these new research studies possible, CoI asked the people involved in the 2006 Pandemic Influenza Epidemic (COVID) to work on the related animals-versus-virus question.

COVID was the most severe flu pandemic of recent times – striking 24 countries around the world – killing more than 360,000 people.

Relatively little is known about how it became that way – a combination of serendipity and chance.

COVID – but also earlier pandemics

The world went through a climate-related pandemic in 1957 and a new influenza strain emerged, widely considered to be a pandemic by 1968.

Media playback is not supported on this device Climate change played a role in the genesis of COVID – media reports

The beginning of COVID

The CoI research team led by Professor Claire Gregory aimed to establish a direct relationship between COVID and the patterns of pandemics across hundreds of years of history.

They found a strong correlation between patterns of pandemics around the world and the occurrences of past and near-future H5N1 bird flu infections in birds.

Image copyright CoI Image caption The virus looked very similar, researchers discovered, and thrived with very different types of animals.

In fact, they found that the exact sequence of genomes from which COVID evolved was being copied from birds infected by new viruses and rippled through the life cycles of different animals.

“What’s fascinating is that in Europe and North America the virus becomes very mild and shed no cells, in Asia it spreads very, very quickly and often causes severe disease,” Dr Gregory said.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Part of the reason COVID appeared to spread very quickly was that people would keep it under control to protect themselves

So what’s happening now?

But what about COVID’s long-term impact? According to Dr Gregory, the fact that COVID was so effective at spreading rapidly and did not affect humans but animals gives some clues as to how dangerous it might be in the future.

“Animal hosts are generally more infectious than humans,” she said.

Media playback is not supported on this device “The fact that it’s bred into animals means it becomes very reliable.”

“Humans also have an immune system that’s built to better defend against infection. If we’re going to manage pandemics effectively we have to understand their origins and where they might reemerge.”

Dr Gregory also identified another area of scientific interest when she noticed that COVID genes were in unusual numbers in relatively recent genotypes of the H5N1 bird flu virus.

That demonstrated that the virus that emerged after COVID had developed itself into a relatively new version of the virus.

“The very recent genes are actually in a range of characteristics which make them different from COVID for that particular lineage, but much more like the older ones,” she said.

“We do not yet know if COVID is still present in H5N1, or if the recent HA2s are coming from different types of birds.

“The only way to really find out is to do more research on what the H5N1 virus is like as it evolves and how COVID affects it.”

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