The State of Avian Influenza in South America, May 2023

The recent avian influenza outbreaks have posed significant challenges in South America, including Brazil, where a 180-day animal health emergency has been declared to address the situation 1. The region’s diverse bird population and bird migration patterns make it susceptible to avian influenza transmission, necessitating robust control measures. In this blog, we will explore the avian influenza situation in South America, with focus on Brazil, while exploring the potential role of early-stage human testing in controlling outbreaks and preventing further spread.

Visit our other blogs for earlier discussions on what avian flu is and the recent human cases in the UK.

The Avian Influenza Situation in South America:

In our March 2023 blog, we discussed how many South American countries have been quick to mobilize resources through declarations of emergency. At the time, ten countries had declared states of emergency, with Brazil having become the latest to join the pack with the discovery of 8 cases of H5N1 in wild birds across Espirito Santo and Rio de Janeiro states. 1 Here are two of the region’s greatest vulnerabilities in the fight against avian flu.

  1. Geographical Factors and Bird Migration: South America’s geographic location and bird migration routes make it a hotspot for avian influenza. The continent serves as a critical stopover and wintering area for migratory birds from North America and other continents. Concurrently, the region serves as a habitat for numerous bird species, including migratory birds that can introduce and spread avian influenza viruses across borders and to domestic flocks. This is why countries like Brazil are exercising vigilant surveillance and monitoring efforts to detect and respond to potential outbreaks.
  2. Poultry Industry Impact: Avian influenza outbreaks have significant implications for the poultry industry in South America. For one, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of poultry products, having been forecasted to produce 14.85 million metric tons of poultry in 2023: this exposes the country to significant avian influenza challenges. 2 As a major producer and exporter of poultry products, South America is vulnerable to the way that outbreaks can disrupt production, trade, and livelihoods. Effective control measures are crucial to mitigate economic losses and ensure the safety of poultry products.

The Role of Early-Stage Human Testing: Brazil’s government has been aggressive in expanding its avian flu testing capabilities this year. In fact, it has ramped up its poultry testing capacity by 19-fold: they estimate that for every one Brazilian real spent in federal poultry testing, they avoid about 64 Brazilian reais in potential losses to the meat industry. 3 At the same time, vulnerable South American countries could soon find that it is just as important to recognize the importance of investments in early-stage human testing, especially for those bearing occupational risks. Here are some reasons that we continue to believe that human testing could be valuable at this time.

  1. Early Detection and Rapid Response: Early-stage human testing plays a critical role in detecting avian influenza cases promptly. By testing individuals who may have had contact with infected birds or are displaying flu-like symptoms, healthcare authorities can quickly identify positive cases. Early detection enables the implementation of timely response measures, such as isolation, treatment, contact tracing, and preventive strategies.
  2. Prevention of Human-to-Human Transmission: Early-stage human testing helps identify cases where avian influenza viruses have the potential to infect humans. By promptly identifying and isolating these cases, the risk of human-to-human transmission can be significantly reduced, preventing the further spread of the virus within the population. While there is currently no evidence of human-to-human transmission, viruses like avian influenza may just be several mutations and infections away from being able to propagate this way.
  3. Vaccine Development and Research: In the event that avian flu begins to circulate amongst people, early-stage human testing is likely to be important for any research and vaccine development efforts in South America. By identifying avian influenza cases early on, researchers could then analyze the genetic makeup and evolution of the virus, contributing to the potential development of effective vaccines tailored to prevalent strains in the country. Ongoing monitoring of vaccine effectiveness and adapting vaccination strategies based on emerging strains could be crucial for long-term control and prevention.

Avian influenza outbreaks in South America, including Brazil, pose significant challenges to public health and the poultry industry. The declaration of a 180-day animal health emergency in Brazil underscores the seriousness of the situation. Early-stage human testing can play a crucial role in the comprehensive strategy to control avian influenza in South America. By facilitating early detection, rapid response, and effective surveillance, early-stage human testing can help prevent further spread, protect public health, and ensure the resilience of the region’s poultry industry.

As mentioned before, the current threat of human-to-human transmission remains low. However, should H5N1 mutate further to allow mammal-to-mammal transmission and human-to-human transmission, we at Virax Biolabs are ready to assist governments and firms alike by providing the necessary diagnostic tools to aide public health efforts in all vulnerable regions.

As part of our ViraxClear distribution platform, the Avian Influenza A (AIV) real-time PCR kit is available to locales accepting the CE mark and MHRA (United Kingdom Compliance) and could be a powerful instrument for people who face high occupational risk or exposure to H5N1, H7 & H9 as well as the population as a whole.