If the grocery store milk is safe, why are experts worried about H5N1?

Before COVID-19, when pandemic experts imagined the next great threat, we always started with a novel influenza virus. Other diseases have also caused pandemics, but influenza is a constantly evolving and ever-present threat. Seasonal influenza viruses have slight changes that let them infect people year after year, but pandemics come from significant shifts in the virus. The 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic was most recent, but the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918 is what we feared most – one-fifth of the world infected and 50 million dead, far more than the 16 million lives lost in World War I.

Flu viruses are excellent at picking up mutations. When two different viruses infect the same person or animal, they can exchange genetic material. The current H5N1 strain (H5N1 can now infect a surprisingly wide variety of birds and mammals. While it is no longer as deadly in humans (the 50% fatality rate was seen earlier in different H5N1 strains), it has caused mass die-offs in sea lions and seals. The more it spreads in mammals, the more opportunities for a mutation that could enable it to cause severe disease in humans or allow for person-to-person transmission. The detection of H5N1 viral fragments in 1 out of 5 grocery store milk samples in many states indicates the virus is far more widespread than initially thought. As expected, gold-standard egg-inoculation tests have shown that pasteurization inactivates the virus. The milk isn’t the threat; it’s the early warning of what could happen.

Milk at store

For most enterprise businesses, the current situation is a straightforward, early signal of a potential disruptive threat. The virus may never evolve to transmit between people, but it has regularly surprised us. With COVID in the rear-view mirror for many, the current situation is a reminder that biosecurity threats will continue to emerge.

Businesses can take several actions now:

  • Review your pandemic plan NOW, before an emergency: update personnel information and ensure designated decision-makers know their roles and decision criteria.
  • Evaluate planning for flu vaccine clinics on site in the fall. If H5N1 evolves to spread easily between humans, an additional flu vaccine may be developed (as happened in the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic). On-site flu clinics could provide both seasonal and H5N1 vaccines if warranted.
  • Encourage employees to stay home when sick and to work from home as appropriate. This practice prepares employees and IT teams for widespread remote or hybrid work, if necessary maintain or establish a work culture that supports employees’ choices to wear masks. An open environment makes it easier for other employees to add this layer of protection if the risk rises. Reducing infections protects workers’ health, reduces absenteeism, and can reduce employer health insurance costs.
  • Maintain or increase the budget for cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer to avoid unexpected costs. Increase the cadence for reviewing purchasing schedules. An unpredictable future is not the time for “set it and forget it.”
  • Prepare for milk and egg price volatility when developing food service budgets. Mandatory testing or other interventions may add costs to milk production that are eventually passed down to the consumer.

Staying ahead of potential risks is more critical now than ever; that’s where PHC Pharos comes in. As a dedicated early warning system, PHC Pharos empowers subscribers with real-time intelligence and expert recommendations to navigate the complex biosecurity landscape effectively. It’s not simply managing potential risks; it’s about solutions and staying ahead of them.

Don’t wait for the next biological threat to disrupt your business continuity.

Sign up for PHC Pharos today and equip your business with the tools to stay one step ahead in an ever-changing world.


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