In early June, China reported a 41-year-old man had been infected with H10N3—a type of avian influenza—marking the first case of human infection from that particular strain.
I will admit the news passed me by as I, like so many others, remained focused on the continued repercussions of another zoonotic virus, SARS-CoV-2, the culprit behind COVID-19.
But for scientists like Jeanne Fair, the event emphasizes the fortuitous timing of a new initiative kicking off this fall: the Avian Zoonotic Disease Network.
A scientist with Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Biosecurity and Public Health division, Fair’s career has focused on epidemiology and animal disease ecology. As part of that work, she spent three years as the regional science manager in the Middle East and Central Asia region for the US Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction program, which is supplying the grant for the new avian project. Along with researchers at Michigan State University, CRDF Global and in Georgia, Jordan and Ukraine, the work will specifically focus on the Mediterranean and Black Sea Flyway, the main migration route for birds between Africa and Europe, one of the least researched flyways.
With many different strains of bird flu “circulating the world,” Fair says, scientists’ first order of business is “understanding how those [viruses] are circulating in both wild populations and sometimes the poultry populations” and then why they are killing birds, which normally are resilient to avian influenza. The next “concern is when it moves to humans…so it’s made that leap, that species leap.” And then, of course, the fourth stage emerges if the virus then became transmissible between people (presumably, this is all sounding familiar).
“Those are the four stages where we try to understand why it moves between those stages, and we also try to do surveillance to try to capture that moment if we can,” Fair says.
Her interest lies in understanding the system as a whole, an international public health paradigm known as “One Health,” which examines the interconnectivity between animals, humans, the environment and the pathogens that cause diseases.
“Any disease, whether it’s a coronavirus or Lyme disease, has its own host pathogen environment,” Fair says. “Any of these disease systems has humans and agricultural animals and wildlife and the environment, and it’s the interaction between those four groups that leads to an outbreak.” For instance, although SARS-CoV-2′s origins remain disputed, one likely explanation is it originated in a bat, then spread to another animal, which came into human contact at a live animal, or “wet” market.
Understanding those interactions, studying them “at the system level,” means scientists are better prepared to focus their bio-surveillance efforts: detecting, diagnosing and reporting pathogens. Bio-surveillance, Fair says, is costly, whether it’s for humans or wildlife, and “there [will] never be enough resources, so how do you…focus your resources to be able to capture that moment prior to an outbreak starting?”
The research the Avian Zoonotic Disease Network will undertake is interdisciplinary in nature, and will include scientists with expertise in bioinformatics, veterinary virology and epidemiology, to name a few specialties.
For Fair, these types of collaborations have become a passion. “Once any agency stops funding something, what’s left are the people and the relationships,” she says. And those long-term relationships benefit both long-term scientific inquiry and fast-moving crises.
An example of the former dates back 25 years, when Fair first set up a network of 400 nestboxes across the Pajarito Plateau in order to study wild bird populations. That project, which has also become a collaborative effort, reflects a common thread throughout all of Fair’s work, which is “trying to understand how environmental stress[ors] impact avian populations and individuals and how does that make them more susceptible or not to infectious diseases.”
Those multiple stressors also played a role in the mass bird mortality event in September 2020, when an estimated 1 million birds died in New Mexico and southern Colorado as a result of drought, wildfire smoke and weather extremes. Fair notes in an essay she wrote in February that the mass bird mortality event led to the creation of a Southwest Avian Health Network to connect New Mexico ornithologists with those in neighboring states.
But the long-term collaborative efforts also benefit scientists when, for example, an outbreak comes along. “A favorite quote is ‘If you wait until the first day of an outbreak to exchange your business cards, the pathogen has already won,’” Fair says (I think this may now be one of my favorite quotes as well).
“Having all of these connections and relationships ready and that trust established makes us so much more competent and effective in dealing with an outbreak quickly,” she adds.
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic required a singular focus.
“We went from having hundreds of different pathogens that we deal with around the world to the world really focusing on one virus,” Fair says. “And it was important to not lose sight of the fact that all these other pathogens—tuberculosis and HIV and the list goes on and on— are still out there as well. So, now it’s about taking our focus off of coronavirus, at least a little bit, to focus on: Did we lose any traction on these other pathogens and can we make that up? And can we take what we learned in the last 20 months and now apply it with fresh eyes to these other systems?”
Given that the last year or so has included an international pandemic, a mass bird mortality event and increasingly extreme weather, I wondered if Fair might be able to provide some scientific reassurance that we aren’t facing the end of days (I may or may not have phrased my question more scientifically).
“That’s exactly why I do this work,” she says, “because the more prepared we are, the more we keep it at a small outbreak and better understand mitigations and understand how to separate your wildlife-human interface, the more better we understand these systems, the more we can focus our bio-surveillance efforts, the more we are planning our future better.”