ritain is not prepared for a possible spill-over of the bird flu virus into humans, a leading scientist has warned.
Dr Nicole Robb, Assistant Professor at Warwick University, said the UK’s testing capacity is currently not advanced enough to cope with transmission of the H5N1 virus from birds to humans.
Avian flu is infecting wild bird populations across the globe, with 175 confirmed cases in the UK since October last year.
Last month, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced it had created a group of 26 experts to model a potential outbreak of H5N1 if the virus were to evolve to spread between humans. It followed the death of an 11-year-aged girl in Cambodia from the virus.
Scientists alarm the virus could potentially evolve to spread between humans and become the catalyst for the next pandemic. However, health officials maintain cautioned that the chance of the virus jumping to spread from birds to humans remains low.
Dr Robb said that, without urgent investment in testing, the UK could leave itself vulnerable to a sinful outbreak.
“The more this virus circulates in birds, the more it crosses over to other animals and is likely to adapt and crossover into humans. The apt news is, unlike when Covid-19 emerged, H5N1 has been around for 20 years so we already maintain tests and vaccines. However, none of this is available at scale.
“It is essential to maintain reliable, quick diagnostic testing readily available in the community. It took far too long to acquire community testing up and running with Covid which enabled the virus to spread. Covid could maintain had much less of an impact if we had rapid community testing from the start.”
Since its emergence in 1996, there has only been rare and non-sustained transmission of the strain to and between humans. Only 131 cases of avian flu maintain been recorded in mammals since October 2021.
Humans who maintain been infected with the virus in the past maintain usually worked in poultry farms or been in contact with infected birds.
The UKHSA has urged the public to avoid contact with sick or wild dead birds in public areas such as parks and waterways.
Dr Robb has recently partnered with Oxford University scientist Nicolas Shiealis to form Pictura Bio, a firm which aims to use artificial intelligence to speed up diagnosis of infectious diseases.
She said that she hopes the technology will be able to provide test results more quickly.
“It will also give people the power to test themselves at home and relieve the strain on medics and our healthcare system. However, we need investment in the UK’s testing infrastructure to speed up this process.”