Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/AP
If you wanted to kill as many people as possible, deniably and without criminal consequences, what would you do? You would do well to start with bird flu. Avian flus are responsible for all known flu pandemics: the great flu that began more than a century ago, the “Asian flu,” the “Hong Kong flu,” and the “Russian flu,” which have killed tens of millions. between them. They also cause many of the annual outbreaks that kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Once you’ve found a suitable variant, two more components are required to put it together. The first is an amplifier. The best amplifier is a giant shed or a factory packed with thousands of birds. These birds must be genetically homogeneous, so that their viral strain can travel freely between them. Intensive poultry farms would do very well. In a short time, a strain of low pathogenicity must mutate in these circumstances into a highly pathogenic variety.
To ensure maximum transmission, you need to move some of the birds, faster than the incubation period for the flu. You can take them across borders. Some would be moved to free range or hobby farms, to increase the chance of infecting wild birds.
But it’s difficult for a flu virus to travel directly from birds to humans, so another component is required: a mixing container. This is a species that can simultaneously harbor the new pathogenic avian virus and a strain of influenza already adapted to humans. The viruses, suitably assembled, can then exchange genetic material, a process known as “rearrangement.”
Pigs are reasonable mixing vessels. They may have played this role in some previous outbreaks and pandemics. But there is a much better candidate: the mink. Mink easily harbor human and bird flu viruses. As predators, they can easily acquire bird flu from the meat they eat. The distribution of sialic acid receptors, a key determinant of infection, in their airways is similar to that in humans. Human influenza strains can pass from one another through aerosol transmission.
Mink also possess, to a remarkable degree, what scientists call “zoonotic potential”: in other words, they can become infected and infect many different species. During the early phases of COVID-19, they proved to be very effective intermediaries, in part because the virus apparently evolves faster in mink than in humans. They seem to have spawned at least two new variants that spread to humans, one in Spain and one in Italy. Mink is the only species known to have received Covid-19 from humans and passed it on to them.
To improve their mixing ability, you would overcrowd hundreds or thousands of the tiny cages that house them, so that this usually solitary animal is forced into contact with others. You would reduce genetic diversity by breeding only those with a particular coat type. In other words, you would do what mink farms do today. So you would sit and wait.
The next pandemic may not have been seeded by a murderous psychopath, but unless we’re lucky, the effect could be the same. H5N1 was a fairly harmless bird flu until a highly pathogenic variant hatched on a Chinese goose farm in 1996. It’s deadly to humans. On the rare occasions that people have contracted this variant, most of the time it has been fatal: of 868 infected as of October last year, 457 have died. Although it has been devastating to both poultry and wild birds, its transmissibility from birds to most mammals and from person to person is fortunately extremely low.
But mink farming offers the mixing bowl you need. In 2021, an article in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections reported that about one-third of the mink researchers tested harbored antibodies against bird flu and human flu. He warned that this joint infection could generate new viruses “with high human infectivity.” The threat to public health “should not be ignored” as it has “pandemic potential”. Needless to say, he was ignored.
A few days ago, the Eurosurveillance magazine revealed the first known case of large-scale transmission of the H5N1 influenza virus from mammal to mammal. It happened, no surprises, on a mink farm; in Galicia, northern Spain. Although the mink were fed poultry products, a practice scientists have long warned against, it appears that the likely cause of the infection was contact with a diseased wild bird that might have fallen against the bars of a cage, and was dragged and eaten. Once inside its mixing container, the virus mutated to become transmissible to the other mink and then spread rapidly on this farm of more than 50,000 cage-to-cage animals.
This epidemic was contained before it left the farm. All the minks were killed, and we might have narrowly missed a potentially deadlier pandemic than covid-19. But the farming of minks for their fur, a cruel and senseless practice, continues in Europe, North America and China. There is a high probability that the next pandemic, whatever it is, will emerge in one of these places. Both because of the abhorrent cruelty suffered by animals and the serious threat it poses to human life, we need a global treaty to ban mink farming.
The H5N1 virus, having acquired its deadly mutations on a poultry farm, is now devastating wild bird populations with dire consequences. It is killing so many that, along with other threats, it could drive some species to extinction. In particular, it is destroying seabird colonies. Because they reproduce late and slowly, they are especially vulnerable to extinction. Wild birds could easily introduce the virus to another mink farm.
Related: Bird flu is a big problem right now, but we’re just one mutation away from getting worse | devi sridhar
This threat is backed by grotesque cruelty: the poultry, mink and pig farms whose horrors we have somehow normalized and accepted. If you treated dogs or cats the same way we treat these animals, you would be sent to prison. But do it with species grown on a large enough scale and you’ll be treated with the special respect accorded to a “captain of industry.” Governments will sweep the dust from your path. Newspapers will write eulogies of the kind that used to be given to emperors.
So who is the homicidal maniac in this story? It’s a barely scrutinized abstraction we call “the economy,” a monster to which anything and everything must be sacrificed without question or resistance: farm animals, wild animals, even, unless we’re lucky, human beings by the millions. We will avoid the pandemics of the future only when we value life over money.