The State of Avian Flu, January 2024: A Panzootic Disease with Potential for Zoonotic Transmission

In our interconnected world, avian flu, particularly the H5N1 subtype, has emerged as a potent panzootic virus – a pandemic virus in animals – with far-reaching consequences. This article seeks to delve into understanding what avian flu is, the current state of the panzootic virus, the imminent risk of zoonotic transmission to humans, and the pivotal roles of testing and surveillance in mitigating the potential impact on global health.

What is Avian Flu (H5N1)? A Review:

As its common name suggests, H5N1 is one version of the avian flu that has historically circulated mainly in marine bird populations. H5N1 is a subtype of influenza A, which means that there are various strains that fall under the H5N1 umbrella. Some of these are considered to be less threatening, while others are considered highly pathogenic, like the strains driving the current outbreaks (1).

H5N1 is not a new subtype: first detected in China in 1996, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been tracking outbreaks of concern since 2003 (2). However, since the last half of 2022, it has become clear that the strains driving the newest H5N1 outbreaks are unlike any of those that we have seen before. It has seemingly outflanked other subtypes of previous concern like H7N9, which drove a 2013 outbreak in China.

Current State of the Panzootic Virus:

After H5N1 mutated in 2021 to infect wild, migratory birds, avian flu has been propelled to the farthest corners of the earth: surpassing international borders, the virus has been devastating for bird species residing in North America, Europe, the Middle East, South America, and now even Antarctica. This far departure from poultry farms saw sporadic mammalian cases such as those on minx and fox farms in Spain and Finland, but now may be taking an even greater foothold in marine mammalians like seals and walruses.

The deaths of 5,000 sea lions in Peru and 17,000 elephant seal pups in Argentina has leading biologists on-edge about the potential of mammal-to-mammal transmission. While the fatalities were most likely caused by things like contaminated milk or faeces, any additional case provides an opportunity for the virus to evolve further (3).

Risk of Zoonotic Transmission to Humans:

Given the recent spread of the virus in mammalian populations, zoonotic transmission, the leap of diseases from animals to humans, remains of great concern with H5N1. Human infections may be rare at the moment, but the recent possibility of the virus transmitting from a mink or seal to a human is much more fathomable than the virus transmitting from index bird populations to humans.

In the past, the virus has infected humans only in isolated cases, leading to severe respiratory illness and, in some cases, fatalities. Now, the risk is heightened by the continuous evolution of the virus, increasing its likelihood of adapting to human hosts (4).

The Potentially Powerful Roles of Testing and Surveillance

Testing and surveillance play a pivotal role in the early detection and monitoring of H5N1. Regular testing of bird populations, both domestic and wild, enables the identification of emerging strains and unusual patterns, facilitating timely responses to potential outbreaks.

Additionally, testing may serve useful to humans who face occupational hazards, such as poultry farm workers and veterinarians who serve poultry populations. Especially as the risk of zoonotic transmission increases, this type of testing and surveillance may prove fruitful. At ViraxClear, we stand ready to deploy our line of avian flu PCR test kits to those who may encounter this potentially deadly virus.

Further, robust testing protocols contribute to a comprehensive zoonotic risk assessment. Monitoring not only bird populations but also areas with a history of human-wildlife interaction helps in gauging the potential for zoonotic transmission, allowing for targeted prevention measures.

Testing within human populations, particularly in regions with a history of avian flu outbreaks, becomes paramount. Surveillance for flu-like symptoms and prompt testing of suspected cases are crucial in identifying and isolating potential human infections, allowing all relevant stakeholders to work towards preventing the spread of the virus.


Avian flu, especially the H5N1 subtype, represents a significant global health challenge with the potential for zoonotic transmission to humans. Understanding the virus, its panzootic nature, and the evolving risk landscape is crucial. Testing and surveillance emerge as powerful tools in our arsenal to combat this threat, enabling early detection, risk assessment, and effective prevention strategies. As we navigate the complex interplay between avian and human health, prioritizing these measures becomes imperative to safeguard public health on a global scale.

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 could be an invaluable instrument for people who face high occupational risk or exposure to H5N1, as well as the population as a whole.



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