WHO reviewing avian flu risk assessment as UK models for pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) is reviewing its risk assessment of the avian flu virus following its continuing spread and transmission to humans.

The WHO also said that is working with Cambodian authorities after two confirmed human cases of H5N1 bird flu were found among one family in the country.

Dr Sylvie Briand, WHO director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, said the current situation is “worrying” due to the recent rise in cases in birds and mammals.

“The global H5N1 situation is worrying given the wide spread of the virus in birds around the world and the increasing reports of cases in mammals including humans,” Briand said. “WHO takes the risk from this virus seriously and urges heightened vigilance from all countries.”

The WHO’s decision comes as UK health officials have started preparing for a possible avian pandemic, with the Health Security Agency (UKHSA) creating a group of 26 experts to model a potential outbreak of H5N1 if the virus were to evolve to spread between humans.

The UKHSA group includes Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was an important component in the nation’s first national COVID- 19 lockdown, as well as UKHSA chief medical officer Dr Susan Hopkins. Policies understood to be examined by the group include the introduction of lateral flow tests for the disease.

On 23 February Cambodian authorities reported the death of an 11-year old girl due to H5N1, and began testing 12 of her contacts. Her father, who had been showing symptoms, has also tested positive for the virus. 

Briand said it was not yet clear whether there had been any human-to-human transmission, which was a key reason to focus on the cases in Cambodia.

A new strain of H5N1 emerged in 2020 and has been causing record numbers of deaths among wild birds and domestic poultry in recent months. It has also infected mammals, raising global concerns.