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Mass testing for bird flu risks repeating Covid mistakes

Health authorities are motivated by the politics of fear and the illusion of control. Credit: Getty

June 14, 2024 - 10:00am

The spread of bird flu in the United States raised alarm bells this week in the media, the WHO, and scientists who claimed that rising infections in cattle and dairy workers are an ominous sign of an emerging human pandemic.

Articles from Scientific American, Time, The Conversation, Fortune, and many others implored the US government and dairy sector to rapidly deploy mass testing and develop an assortment of biosecurity measures to “prevent” viral evolution and human-to-human transmission.

The EU commission reportedly signed a deal for 40 million human vaccine doses to protect farmworkers. And two dozen vaccine manufacturers are working on creating a bovine vaccine.

Yet, as with Covid, mainstream media and health authorities are fast becoming spreaders of misinformation themselves, motivated by the politics of fear, the illusion of control, and inherent biases in the industry of pandemic response.

Take a quote from notable science reporter Amy Maxman today in Scientific American: “To become a pandemic, the H5N1 bird flu virus would need to spread from person to person. The best way to keep tabs on that possibility is by testing people.”

Earlier this month, Deborah Birx, former Covid response coordinator under Trump, advocated for the mass weekly testing of “every cow” and “every dairy worker” in the United States. She claimed that America was repeating Covid-era mistakes by not ramping up testing to track asymptomatic and undetected cases.

Such a policy proposal, from America’s previous Covid coordinator and a veteran of the global health diplomatic corps in Washington, is concerning for a few reasons. First, at last count there were 87 million heads of cattle and calves in the United States. About nine million are milk cows, distributed in different herd sizes over about 25,000 farms and with over 100,000 dairy workers.

Birx, and others, appear to be reincarnating the infamous 2020 US strategy of “chasing the silent spread,” whereby asymptomatic Covid was used to justify expensive mass sentinel testing, environmental sampling (wastewater) as a proxy for human infection, and the erroneous use of mass contact tracing.

Yet another problem with the bird flu narrative, on repeat from Covid, is the misrepresentation of what we know about risk. The media likes to repeat the “fact” that there have been over 900 reported human cases of H5N1 since 1997, with a 50% mortality rate. Yet, this is absolutely not the real number of infections. Even within this highly selective data, most cases were reported prior to 2015. Given the huge scale of current spread and mortality in wild and domestic birds and mammals since 2021, including the slaughter of half-a-billion farmed poultry to try and control H5N1, the lack of reported human deaths is a good thing.

This week’s cycle of media articles is due to H5N1 being found in nearly 100 farms across 12 US states, as well as cats and mice. The (so far) three human cases had conjunctivitis, cough, and other flu-like symptoms and recovered. Anecdotal reports from dairy workers suggest much wider circulation of mild flu-like symptoms. Two mild cases were recently reported in children in Australia (H5N1) and India (H9N2).

In short, spillover events are much more widespread than our testing suggests and certainly not confined to the US dairy industry. Yet the fear narrative continues. Just last week, the international media jumped on news from the World Health Organization about what they called “the first death” from H5N2 bird flu in Mexico. Two days later, the Mexican Minister of Health hit back claiming that the WHO statement was “not accurate
and is pretty bad” since the 59-year old man had died from other unrelated causes. It was with H5N2 and not from H5N2.

Leaving aside the fact that the mass testing programme promoted by Birx and others is completely unrealistic (and undesirable), what would it most likely accomplish? What would happen when more H5N1 is inevitably found and some human-to-human transmission chains extend beyond the dairy industry and into the wider community?

As we learned during 2020-22, mass testing is not neutral. Now we risk turning back to the faulty logic and harmful knee-jerk reaction of the Covid-era. We must leave this behind — and make sure any legacy of chasing the asymptomatic spread approach to respiratory viruses, Covid or bird flu, should go with it.


Kevin Bardosh is a research professor and Director of Research for Collateral Global, a UK-based charity dedicated to understanding the collateral impacts of Covid policies worldwide.

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Michael Lipkin
Michael Lipkin
1 month ago

There is an air borne mammal to mammal transmissible version of H5N1 sitting in a lab in Rotterdam (courtesy Fouchier et al)
Possibly these lab created viruses are more dangerous than species jump ones. With a lab accident you get a sudden release of potentially pathogenic organisms instead of the gradual changes associated with natural species jumping, which gives time for milder (less human optimized) forms to jump and some immunity to develop.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

Here we go again.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago

“what would it most likely accomplish ?”

Kerching.

Arthur G
Arthur G
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

That’s just a happy side effect for big Pharma. What the elites want is greater control. US and European political and corporate leaders largely envy China at this point. No messy elections, or competition to challenge your hegemony, and plenty of nice tech solutions to monitor and punish the plebes.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
1 month ago
Reply to  Arthur G

…and no food for the plebs either!

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

Maybe they’ll close the supermarkets this time. Or actually this idea from my own brain frightens me,they might issue us all with a Time Slot and we can only go to our allocated store in that Time Slot. Also I have heard on my radio that the idea of rationing ,like in WW2 (but a rubbish version) is being actively and enthusiastically discussed in Cabinet (not now of course) if you start hearing in the media lots of talk about how healthy we were in WW2 you’ll know what the plan is. I’ve heard those wannabe Churchills love the idea and want to implement it. They will have learnt a lot from first time round and our freedom to shop ameliorated the situation a lot.

David B
David B
1 month ago

We’re calling them “COVID mistakes” now, are we? Luckily, my disingenuity meter goes up to 11.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 month ago

Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us. It would truly be ironic if the revolution is finally sparked by medical authoritarianism “for our own good.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-worsened-america-rage-virus-for-which-theres-no-vaccine-lockdown-vaccine-mandates-ron-desantis-stanford-masking-2670cd39?st=ojl9ixe80btp5cb&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink

Mary Bruels
Mary Bruels
1 month ago

Based on Covid, I will not consent to testing nor will I accept another jab. I do not trust these people.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Mary Bruels

They’re busy building detention centres in all 50 US states with capacity for thousands of detainees aka political dissidents.

Best get your ‘overnight bag’ ready for that knock on the door.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

That sounds far more plausible today than it did five years ago.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Paranoid, anyone? Let’s put on our tinfoil hats!

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Got mine well on and intend not to comply. I wanna kill Grannies. I will picnic in the Park

Bernard Stewart
Bernard Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

That’s the spirit!

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

They did a practice run of that in the city of Bristol where I live. Google Barton House. A week before Xmas. Text at 11pm to all residents. Throw a few essential items in a bag,then leave the building and get on the coach outside. You’ve got an hour. A few people did not comply but most people OBEYED!!! Cover story was safety concern.

A D Kent
A D Kent
1 month ago

So we can all look forward to another mass obfuscation of the the ‘with’ versus ‘of’ deaths hysteria then?

Having just read ‘The Moth In the Iron Lung’ in which Forest Maready makes a very convincing case that the proximal cause of most serious polio cases was not the virus itself, but poisoning (from arsenic pesticides, heavy metal pollution & DDT) that destroyed the sufferers natural immunity to the (many) viruses that can cause it, I’m even more convinced the medical profession will get this one wrong again too.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

You call them mistakes; the public health apparatus calls them opportunities.

John Hellerstedt
John Hellerstedt
1 month ago

I met Ambassador Brix during the early phase of the pandemic. I admire her work and her expertise, but she was not prepared for the pandemic.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
1 month ago

Birx, in her memoir, celebrated her successful evasion of directives given her by legitimate policymakers. Many of those evasions are now recognized as mistakes. Birx may well be impressive in person. However, she is contemptible in conduct.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

It’s all LIES. I don’t and won’t believe a word of it. I intend NOT TO COMPLY. It’s LIES. I hope this doesn’t mean we’ll have nice smiley Granny Yasmin Alibai Brown on our TV screens again vituperatively advocating making unjabbed homeless,jobless and wearing a big colourful symbol so we can recognize them and abuse or attack them. Those grannies in the front row at the wrestling are always the most vicious.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

As I believe THEY (no I don’t know who THEY are) take malicious pleasure in also mocking us with cruel jokes,like calling that COVID variant OMICRON an anagram of Moronic I also now think the “test” they devised was actually a perverted and cruel joke based on the idea of Oral Sex. Yes,and I’m NOT JOKING. Pushing something right to the back of your throat is not only almost impossible to do,to yourself,it’s very difficult to do without gagging. It’s actually a very invasive act of a penetrative nature and they must have been getting circumcised Hard-Ons imagining Mums having to do it to their kids.
So Lucifer only knows where we’ll have to push it next time.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
1 month ago

As Adam Kucharski (epidemiologist LSHTM) pointed out on X at the end of May :
“If we were to observe the gradual emergence of a new pandemic pathogen (which hasn’t been possible historically) these are the sort of signals we could expect to see”
Of course, it may never mutate into anything alarming as far as us humans are concerned but you won’t know this unless you observe it, real time.
Happily, post Covid, there is much more surveillance and genomic typing going on (waste water and milk and chicken shit and so on) so there is a patchy early warning system in place.
One of the happy “lessons learned” from Covid.