Two new viruses found in the Eastern Hemisphere could cause a global pandemic — or not.
In an increasing global society, Oklahoma public health workers are keeping an eye on a bird flu virus known as H7N9. So far, it has been contained to China.
But like other flu viruses, it could pose a larger threat if the virus becomes transmittable from one human to another.
State epidemiologist Kristy Bradley said there's enough concern regarding H7N9 flu virus that the state Health Department has assembled a planning team to work out the details of how the state would respond to a pandemic.
“We're meeting every two weeks, sort of dusting off pandemic preparedness plans, and reviewing them and doing some updates and also looking again at our after-action report and improvement plan that was part of our processes as we went through the 2009 H1N1 pandemic,” Bradley said.
Along with monitoring H7N9, Bradley and her team also are monitoring a new coronavirus that has emerged in the Middle East and Europe.
Coronaviruses are common viruses that most people get at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They generally cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses.
However, the new coronavirus is different from any other coronavirus that has been previously found in people, according to the CDC.
As of May, 38 people in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and France have been sickened by the new coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty of those 38 people have died.
The new coronavirus is in the same family as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused an outbreak in 2003 that sickened about 8,000 people.
Bradley said so far, coronavirus has been shown to be transmittable from limited person-to-person contact. For example, the virus spread from one hospitalized patient to another in France and caused a hospital outbreak in Saudi Arabia, she said.
“With the coronavirus, there's no readily available medication to treat cases or any immediate plans or capabilities to develop a vaccine,” Bradley said. “So, a little more serious if that one should expand and threaten more persons. At least with the H7N9 flu, we know that we have the antiviral medications that are used to treat regular seasonal flu.”
H7N9 is a new bird flu virus causing serious illness in China, according to the CDC. As of the latest report on May 8, there were 131 confirmed cases of H7N9 with 32 deaths, according to the CDC.
However, the virus isn't spreading easily between people, and evidence shows most people have been infected after being exposed to birds or going to places like live bird markets, according to the CDC. There isn't a current vaccine for H7N9, but scientists are presently looking at how one could be developed.
Most bird flu viruses don't cause disease in humans, according to the World Health Organization. H7N9 is a subgroup of flu viruses that normally circulate among birds, according to WHO. Until recently, the virus hadn't been seen in people, but human infections have been detected, according to WHO.
Gillian Air, a University of Oklahoma professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has studied flu viruses since the 1970s. Air said overall, her level of concern about H7N9 is low.
“The potential is there, and you've got to be careful because if it did take off, it would be very serious,” she said. “That's why there are obviously efforts to make a vaccine.”
The 2009 swine flu pandemic that killed more than 40 Oklahomans is the most recent example of a flu pandemic.
Air said from what's known about the flu virus, it's generally more likely that a virus that begins in pigs will be more likely to develop into a virus that can be transmitted from one person to another, versus a virus that begins in birds.
Normally, flu viruses in pigs infect only the people handling them, if they infect people at all, but they aren't generally transmittable from one person to another. However, the H1N1 virus did become transmittable from human to human.
“There has to be a level of concern, and there has to be a vaccine effort,” Air said. “But if I was asked to give the chances of it becoming a pandemic in humans, I think it's probably pretty low based on our experience for many years with these avian viruses, but you can never be sure, so you have to take precaution.”
The potential is there, and you've got to be careful because if (the H7N9 virus) did take off, it would be very serious.”
University of Oklahoma professor of biochemistry and molecular biology