Musings of a Political Scientist

Avian Flu Virus – Bird Flu

Avian Flu - Bird Flu by Bryan Brandenburg

Avian Flu Virus – Bird Flu

Avian flu (also known as “bird flu”, “avian influenza”, “bird influenza”), means “flu from viruses adapted to birds”, but is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to both other flu subsets (such as H5N1 flu) or the viruses that cause them (such as H5N1).

“Bird flu” is a phrase similar to “Swine flu”, “Dog flu”, “Horse flu”, or “Human flu” in that it refers to an illness caused by any of many different strains of flu viruses such that the strain in question has adapted to the host. “Avian flu” differs in being named after an entire vertebrate class with 8,800–10,200 species. All known avian flu viruses belong to the species of virus called Influenza A virus. All subtypes (but not all strains of all subtypes) of Influenza A virus are adapted to birds, which is why for many purposes avian flu virus is the Influenza A virus (note that the “A” does not stand for “avian”).

Adaptation is sometimes partial or multiple so a flu virus strain can be partially adapted to a species or adapted to more than one species. Flu pandemic viruses are human adapted and also bird adapted. Being adapted to one species does not mean another species can not catch it; nor does it mean it can not adapt to another species.

Genetic factors in distinguishing between “human flu viruses” and “avian flu viruses” include:

  • PB2: (RNA polymerase): Amino acid (or residue) position 627 in the PB2 protein encoded by the PB2 RNA gene. Until H5N1, all known avian influenza viruses had a Glu at position 627, while all human influenza viruses had a lysine.
  • HA: (hemagglutinin): Avian influenza HA bind alpha 2-3 sialic acid receptors while human influenza HA bind alpha 2-6 sialic acid receptors. Swine influenza viruses have the ability to bind both types of sialic acid receptors.
    The HA changes have not yet occurred in any sequenced H5N1 virus – even ones from humans that died from it and the PB2 changes don’t stop it from being a flu virus adapted to birds (the definition of “avian flu virus”).

Pandemic flu viruses have some avian flu virus genes and usually some human flu virus genes. Both the H2N2 and H3N2 pandemic strains contained genes from avian influenza viruses. The new subtypes arose in pigs coinfected with avian and human viruses and were soon transferred to humans. Swine were considered the original “intermediate host” for influenza, because they supported reassortment of divergent subtypes. However, other hosts appear capable of similar coinfection (e.g., many poultry species), and direct transmission of avian viruses to humans is possible. The Spanish flu virus strain may have been transmitted directly from birds to humans.

Mostly Asymptomatic to Humans

In spite of their pandemic connection, avian influenza viruses are noninfectious for most species. When they are infectious they are usually asymptomatic, so the carrier does not have any disease from it. Thus while infected with an avian flu virus, the animal doesn’t have a “flu”. Typically, when illness (called “flu”) from an avian flu virus does occur, it is the result of an avian flu virus strain adapted to one species spreading to another species (usually from one bird species to another bird species). So far as is known, the most common result of this is an illness so minor as to be not worth noticing (and thus little studied). But with the domestication of chickens and turkeys, humans have created species subtypes (domesticated poultry) that can catch an avian flu virus adapted to waterfowl and have it rapidly mutate into a form that kills in days over 90% of an entire flock and spread to other flocks and kill 90% of them and can only be stopped by killing every domestic bird in the area. Until H5N1 infected humans in the 1990s, this was the only reason avian flu was considered important. Since then, avian flu viruses have been intensively studied; resulting in changes in what is believed about flu pandemics, changes in poultry farming, changes in flu vaccination research, and changes in flu pandemic planning.