Have We Learned Nothing From the COVID-19 Pandemic? New Animal Epidemics Ignored

You would think as COVID-19 has now killed 5.54 million, there would be greater vigilance about other brewing zoonotic epidemics. Yet even as 41 countries now have outbreaks of avian influenza, called HPAI or H5N1, including the US, there is little to no reporting on the threat in the US press. The attitude still seems to be “wait and see” as it was with COVID-19 though cases surfaced six months before any action was taken; have we learned nothing?

Since the new year, millions of birds have been killed in IsraelSpain, France (notable for its foie gras), the UK, the NetherlandsHungaryNigeriaIndiaJapan and other countries to stop the spread of avian influenza. Yet depopulating and “repopulating the global poultry stock” doesn’t work and just keeps “reloading the gun” of avian influenza say Dr. Michael Greger in his excellent book, “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.”

While the HPAI/H5N1 “bird flu” virus does not easily transmit to humans, when it does it is often fatal. Moreover, since bird and swine viruses are both Type A influenzas, a bigger worry is reassortment as we saw with the 2009 H1N1 virus (called “swine flu” until pork industry pressure). This virus was an eerie mix of five swine and bird flu influenzas. The 1918 flu epidemic was also from a bird influenza virus.

Reporter Tom Philpott indicted the massive Smithfield Foods subsidiary Granjas Carroll de México, along the Mexican border, for hatching the 2009 virus –– though Smithfield strongly disagreed.

Concerns about influenza reassortments appear in the scientific literature. According to the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution, “Nowadays, it is well-established that A(H1N1)pdm 2009 was the result of a genomic reorganization between two A(H1N1) swine viruses with at least four previously reassorted gene segments from avian, human and swine-adapted viruses…The H5N1 virus infecting humans was the result of a reassortment among a quail H9N2 strain with segment-4 (hemagglutinin, HA) from goose H5N1 and with segment-6 (neuraminidase, NA) from teal H6N1 viruses…These are excellent examples of how reassortment can impact the evolution of segmented viruses.”

In addition to bird flu mutations, scientists and public health officials also worry about the evolution of the Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome coronavirus or SADS-CoV which is very similar to COVID-19 and also endemic to China and linked to bats. While SADS-CoV does not appear to have reached US shores yet, it is related to porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) which caused the death of millions of US pigs in 2013–2014.

Another disease that has overtaken most of the world while barely reported in the US is African Swine Fever (ASF) virus. It killed a quarter of the world’s pigs in 2019 and is now endemic in 50 countries including our neighbor Haiti. Unless you read the ag press you’ve probably never heard of it.

ASF has devastated China’s pork industry and may explain why China relies on the Smithfield Tar Heel, North Carolina slaughter plant, which it bought in 2013, for pork.

Few realize the gigantic slaughterhouse which kills as many as 35,000 pigs a day is owned by China’s WH Group. China bought the plant soon after thousands of pigs with circovirus were found floating in the Huangpu river. Congressional hearings were held but the sale went forward.

Has Pandemic Response Improved?

It is understandable that public health officials want to avoid “false alarms” when a pandemic does not develop –– especially after the apparent overreaction to a swine flu outbreak in the US in 1976 that did not materialize. Still, erring on the side of caution with COVID-19 and acting sooner would have saved millions.

Less noble are the motives of news outlets whose fast and processed food advertisers cause them to downplay and even ignore animal diseases that could cut into sales. Who, for example, ever saw piles of pig or poultry carcasses on the news when viruses that killed those animals relentlessly ripped through the US less than 10 years ago?

Thanks to slow-to-act public health organizations and Big Food-captured news outlets, zoonotic epidemics that could become pandemics are still ignored until they are knocking at our front door and it is too late. Has COVID-19 taught us nothing?

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).