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Media Draw Links Between H5N1 Bird Flu and Next Potential Human Pandemic

The UK Health Security Agency began hiring for a "Vaccine Supply Operations Lead" to handle "pandemic flu preparedness" during "what is expected to be the UK’s largest vaccination programme."
Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: February 15, 2023
H5N1 may be the next human pandemic, says western media
MSU math professor Casim Abbas shows the result of his morning's egg collection on Feb. 8, 2023. International media has started to link the H5N1 Avian Influenza pandemic as the next possible pandemic among humans after relatively innocuous comments made by WHO Director General Tedros on the topic of the virus beginning to infect mammals. (Image: MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images)

News analysis

Major outlets have begun linking the H5N1 avian influenza pandemic that has been ransacking poultry and other animals with a potential new human pandemic following remarks made by the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, H5N1 avian influenza, also known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), began hitting American “aquatic birds, commercial poultry and backyard or hobbyist flocks” starting in January of 2022.

Thus far, the disease has affected more than 58 million birds across 47 states, the CDC calculates, based on the total flock sizes where outbreaks were detected.

North of the border, the Canadian government estimates that approximately 7.1 million birds have been affected by the virus, also based on flock sizes of confirmed outbreaks. 

The CDC notes that 2022’s emergence of the disease is the first time it has been seen since 2016. Additionally, 6,111 wild birds and one person have been affected by the virus as of Feb. 8, statistics show.


A connection between H5N1 and humans has primarily gone untouched. The only case in the U.S. occurred in April of 2022 in Colorado in a worker involved in the culling of infected birds.

“The patient reported fatigue for a few days as their only symptom and has since recovered,” the CDC stated.

But during a Feb. 8 media briefing, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus brought up a development in the H5N1 avian influenza pandemic wherein the virus has begun transmitting from birds to mammals.

Tedros stated, “Over the past few weeks there have been several reports of mammals including minks, otters, foxes and sea lions having been infected with H5N1 avian influenza.”

“H5N1 has spread widely in wild birds and poultry for 25 years, but the recent spillover to mammals needs to be monitored closely,” he added, describing the risk to humans as “low.”

“Since H5N1 first emerged in 1996 we have only seen rare and non-sustained transmission of H5N1 to and between humans,” the Director General continued. “But we cannot assume that will remain the case, and we must prepare for any change in the status quo.” 

A Feb. 10 report by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) stated that, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, H5N1 has recently been found in:

  • Oregon: skunks and a racoon
  • Wyoming, Wisconsin, South Dakota: foxes
  • California and Washington: bobcats
  • Montana: grizzly bears
  • Nebraska: mountain lions and amur tigers

The WHO’s most recent Avian Influenza Weekly Update, dated Feb. 3, shows that while the spread of H5N1 to human beings is rare, it does have an exceptionally high fatality rate.

Data shows that from 2003 to present, in an area that includes China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, there have been 868 human infections, with a fatality rate of 53 percent, amounting to 457 deaths.

However, almost all cases were reported between 2003 and 2014.

Since 2016, there have only been two reported human cases: one from Laos in 2020 and one from China in 2022.

The Chinese case was reported by the authorities as resulting in death of the patient.

Media fanning

A Feb. 14 article published in The Economist titled “Will Avian Flu be the Next Human Pandemic?” was sub-headed as “The virus has spread from birds to mammals, heightening the risk.”

The article characterized Tedros’s comments as “warn[ing] that the world had to prepare for a possible bird-flu pandemic.” 

“How worried should humankind be?” the publication asked.

“Before covid-19, it was widely believed that the next human pandemic would be caused by an influenza virus,” The Economist answered. “The 1918 influenza pandemic, which is now known to have had genes of avian origin, killed about 50m people.”

Same day reporting by CNN on the topic was more subdued, but still laid the foundation for a potential transition of H5N1 from birds, and now mammals, to humans.

The article, titled “Bird Flu Isn’t a Direct Threat to Humans Yet, Experts Say, but They’re Keeping a Close Eye On the Virus,” took advantage of the opportunity to perpetuate the notion that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had a natural origin in bats, and spread to humans, rather than being manufactured by gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“But highly pathogenic avian influenza is no Covid-19. Scientists are reassuring the public that, with a few rare exceptions, the virus hasn’t made the jump to humans at a large enough scale to trigger an outbreak,” CNN stated.

The article continued: “It has gone far beyond birds, though, and its recent spread among members of a separate species has some experts concerned about the way the virus is changing.”

CNN noted that in the current outbreak, only 10 human cases of avian influenza had been reported worldwide as of December 2021.

Politico Europe was early to the punch in Feb. 8 reporting, which shared an almost identical narrative, “The recent spillover of bird flu to mammals has led the World Health Organization to warn that while the risk to humans currently remains low, it cannot be assumed that this will remain the case.”

UK tabloid Daily Mail combined all the aspects of the story into an alarmingly titled Feb. 14 article: “Bird Flu ‘May Mutate To Kill More Than 50% of Humans.'”

The outlet paraphrased the World Organisation for Animal Health as warning that “mammals could act as ‘mixing vessels’ for different influenza viruses, potentially unleashing a new variant that could be ‘more harmful’ to humans.”

Government prelude

One eyebrow-raising form of confluence with the trending narrative change is found in a recent employment ad posted by the UK Health Security Agency.

The Agency is hiring for a Vaccine Supply Operations Lead as part of its Vaccines and Countermeasures Response Team.

The advertisement states the Team “leads the procurement and supply of vaccines…and the national stockpiles, vaccine agreements and storage and distribution requirements for pandemic flu preparedness and emergency response planning.”

Although the live advertisement expires Feb. 21, a previous version of the advertisement expiring Feb. 14 was copy and pasted to Twitter, containing the following verbiage:

“The role of Vaccine Supply Operations Lead is a new post to support the operations, providing accurate and timely reports for a range of stakeholders during what is expected to be the UK’s largest vaccination programme which will be delivered at pace and will be a key Ministerial priority.” [Emphasis added]

The Feb. 21 version was revised to state, “The role of Vaccine Supply Operations Lead is a post to support operational activity, including providing accurate and timely reports for a range of stakeholders for the on-going COVID-19 vaccination programme. The role will be directly responsible for the daily operational management of all COVID-19 related products, ensuring their timely distribution across the UK, Crown Dependencies, and Overseas Territories.”

In early February, news outlet National File reported that the CDC had issued a quiet update to its ICD-10 billing and tracking codes to include specific categories for: 

  • “Unvaccinated for COVID-19”
  • “Partially Vaccinated for COVID-19”
  • “Other underimmunization status”

The outlet cited an April 2022 document from the U.S. Centers for Medicaid & Medicaid Services that stated the ICD-10 changes had already been installed.