Russia on Saturday said that its scientists had detected the world’s first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of avian flu from birds to humans and had alerted the WHO.
Anna Popova, head of Russia’s health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, in televised remarks said scientists at the Vektor laboratory had isolated the strain’s genetic material from seven workers at a poultry farm in southern Russia, where an outbreak was recorded among the birds in December last year.
The workers did not suffer any serious health effects, she added.
They are believed to have caught the virus from poultry on the farm.
“Information about the world’s first case of transmission of the avian flu [H5N8] to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organization,” Popova said.
There are different subtypes of avian influenza viruses. While the highly contagious H5N8 strain is lethal for birds, it had never before been reported to have spread to humans.
Popova praised “the important scientific discovery,” saying “time will tell” if the virus would mutate further.
“The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion,” Popova said.
The WHO confirmed that it had been notified about the development by Russia.
“We are in discussion with national authorities to gather more information and assess the public health impact of this event,” a WHO spokesperson said. “If confirmed, this would be the first time H5N8 infects people.”
The WHO stressed that the Russian workers were “asymptomatic” and no onward human-to-human transmission had been reported.
Russia’s Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center, which detected the transmission to the poultry farm workers, also developed one of the country’s several COVID-19 vaccines.
In the Soviet era, the lab, located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, conducted secret biological weapons research.
It still stockpiles viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.
In televised remarks, Vektor chief Rinat Maksyutov said that the lab was ready to begin developing test kits that would help detect potential cases of H5N8 in humans and to begin work on a vaccine.
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