As bird flu spreads in cows, fractured U.S. response has echoes of early covid

Federal agencies with competing interests are slowing the nation’s ability to track and control a outbreak of highly virulent avian flu that is infecting cows in the United States for the first time, according to government officials and health and industry experts.

This response echoes the early days of 2020, when the coronavirus began its deadly march across the world. Now, some officials and experts are expressing frustration that more livestock herds are not being tested for bird flu, and that when testing and epidemiological studies are carried out, the results are not shared quickly enough or with sufficient detail. They worry that these delays could allow the pathogen to move unchecked – and potentially acquire the genetic machinery needed to spread rapidly among humans. A Texas dairy worker has already fallen ill amid the outbreak, the second U.S. case of this type of bird flu.

Officials and experts said the lack of clear and timely updates from some federal agencies responding to the outbreak is reminiscent of similar communications missteps early in the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, they highlight the failure to publicly provide more details on how the H5N1 virus spreads in cows and the safety of the milk supply.

“This requires multiple agencies to coordinate and communicate internally, but especially externally, which does not seem to be happening due to different cultures, priorities, legal responsibilities, scientific expertise and agility,” said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist. who writes a weekly bulletin on infectious diseases and has closely followed the avian flu epidemic. “Add to that the usual challenges of scientific uncertainty, complexity and, frankly, global pressure, and you end up with a completely unacceptable mess. »

A senior administration official said there were “no competing interests.” The White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response is coordinating the outbreak response with relevant agencies “working quickly and methodically.” The government is “committed to sharing the results as soon as possible,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

“This work is an urgent priority as we work to ensure the continued effectiveness of the federal milk safety system and strengthen the current (Food and Drug Administration) assessment that the commercial milk supply is safe,” the administration official said.

Until Wednesday, H5N1 screening in dairy herds was voluntary and limited to affected cows certain symptoms. The number of tests per farm was also limited. This protocol has drawn strong criticism from public health experts. Amid growing evidence that the virus is more prevalent among cows than previously thought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that lactating dairy cows must be tested for avian flu before crossing borders. States, starting Monday.

Responsibility for monitoring and containing the outbreak is divided among three agencies. The USDA is leading the investigation into the virus in cows, the FDA is overseeing food safety, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring risks to people.

Agencies have given individual updates on their parts of the outbreak investigation, but Wednesday marked This is the first time since bird flu was detected in cows four weeks ago that the CDC, FDA and USDA, along with other agencies, have jointly held a press conference. On Thursday, government scientists are expected to present data from their investigations during a webinar hosted by state health officials.

For weeks, key federal agencies have expressed confidence in the safety of the commercial milk supply, including pasteurized products sold in grocery stores.

But it took two weeks before the FDA directly responded to questions from The Washington Post about whether the agency was testing milk on grocery store shelves for H5N1. On Tuesday, the agency confirmed that virus particles had been found “in some samples,” but declined to provide details. On Wednesday, an FDA official confirmed that fragments had been found in milk on shelves, but declined to say how many samples the agency had tested, how many contained virus fragments. and where the milk comes from. The tests do not indicate whether the virus fragments are active or dead.

Additional testing is underway, but Donald A. Prater, acting director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency has not seen anything that would change its assessment that the commercial milk supply remains secure. “We also know that assessments may change as we learn more, and we will be transparent about any changes based on emerging data,” Prater said.

Authorities are seeking answers to other key questions: They want to know whether the virus spreads between cows by mechanical means, such as milking equipment, as evidence suggests, or through the air, which would be more dangerous and would lead to more sustained spread. They also want to know how long cattle will shed the virus in their milk once they have recovered from an infection. And above all, they will seek to determine the risks of human exposure and whether protocols are in place at the state level if additional people test positive.

The investigation “involves different types of samples, different types of studies and being really methodical about how we approach answering these questions around things like ensuring the safety of the food supply,” he said. declared one of them. senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity to share internal policy discussions.

“We’re not trying to pull the fire alarm here and suggest that there’s more risk to people than there is,” said another federal health official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to share internal deliberations.

The key to the epidemic lies with the cows.

Public health officials and industry experts say USDA should conduct broader testing for paint a clearer picture of the scale of the epidemic. The government has been too slow to share genetic information and epidemiological studies, they said. More systematic testing of herds and even other animals would reduce the risk of the virus spreading to other cattle and poultry farms, public health experts and veterinarians said.

“Given that this is a new outbreak, testing needs to be done widely and quickly, investigators need to go to affected farms, and scientists and policymakers need to put it all together to establish a coordinated action plan,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in an email last week. Inglesby was the White House testing czar during the Biden administration’s response to the coronavirus.

“It’s not just about protecting America’s agricultural interests,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health. “This is about protecting human health, protecting agricultural workers who may be at risk and preventing another pandemic from happening.” »

Nearly three dozen livestock herds across eight states have been infected in the past month. The virus has also spread from dairy farms to poultry farms and infected barn cats. Epidemiologists fear this indicates cows can transmit the virus to birds, and possibly other animals, widening the potential for spread.

Scientists who have conducted genetic analyzes of viruses taken from infected animals say the tests suggest the outbreak may have been occurring for longer and across a larger part of the United States than previously thought.

Michael Worobey, a University of Arizona virologist who led a team of scientists that analyzed 239 According to genetic sequences released Sunday by the USDA, the virus’s evolutionary tree “resoundingly indicates that this outbreak had a single origin and had been circulating under our noses for months before it was noticed.”

“What is concerning is that all of these outbreaks in at least eight different states traced back to a common ancestor that had probably existed since late 2023, which meant that this outbreak almost certainly had its tendrils all over the United States and possibly be beyond. ” Worobey said.

Scientists trying to piece together the genesis of the outbreak said the USDA was too slow to share critical genetic data initially and that when a “large dump” of 239 genetic sequences arrived Sunday, it did not was not exhaustive.

“Like what samples they came from, when exactly they were collected… and where exactly they were collected,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and principal investigator at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Organization. in Canada.

Public health and veterinary experts say they also want more epidemiological data — including information on animal movements, their food sources and the number of workers on site — to understand how and where the virus is circulating.

Beth Thompson, South Dakota’s state veterinarian and chair of the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials, said this information needs to be shared quickly.

“It’s like if you just rip a page out of a chapter of a book and give it to the states, it doesn’t represent the whole chapter,” Thompson said. “We need all the information returned to us. »

The lack of more aggressive testing of livestock and transparent sharing of data has frustrated Department of Health and Human Services officials, according to another federal health official and a public health expert who was briefed on the answer.

USDA officials may be constrained by their mission to promote new markets for farmers and protect animal health and welfare, said an administration official who spoke under the guise of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “They’re just twisting themselves because they have two missions that, in this case, point to…

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