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Advanced diagnostic testing is crucial for preventing an avian flu pandemic

By Pictura Bio director, Nicole Robb



The COVID-19 pandemic had a disastrous global impact, not only on population health, but at a societal and economic level.

Although we are now over the worst of it, it is inevitable other novel viruses will emerge in the coming years, including those which may threaten another pandemic.

This risk increases in line with population growth, particularly as humans expand into previously uninhabited areas and come into contact with virus-carrying wildlife.

Looking back at trends over the last century, there have been six major pandemics, with the number of outbreaks increasing in frequency over the last 20 years.

To prevent another pandemic as catastrophic as COVID-19, more advanced and effective testing is going to be essential to quickly and accurately diagnose infectious diseases, helping limit their spread and reduce their impact.

An avian flu pandemic is unlikely but not impossible

One of the known threats we are currently facing is from avian flu (H5N1), a virus that is naturally hosted in wild birds.

This virus is spreading unprecedentedly in birds across the globe and, concerningly, has already spilt over to some mammals – 3,487 sea lion deaths from H5N1 have been reported in Peru, as well as outbreaks on a mink farm in Spain, and in otters and foxes in the UK.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 868 cases have been reported in humans since the virus emerged in 2003, 457 of which were fatal.

This gives avian flu an extremely high fatality rate of roughly 50 per cent.

While the H5N1 virus has been around for 20 years and has not yet adapted to be transmissible between humans, the increasing circulation amongst birds does raise the likelihood of avian flu crossing over to other animals and adapting to cause a spillover event in humans.

The risk appears small, but it is by no means impossible.

We learnt many important lessons about how to handle a viral outbreak from the COVID-19 pandemic – and, in many cases, how not to handle one.

Primarily, there is now a consensus view that it is essential to have reliable, quick diagnostic testing that is accessible to everyone.

It took many months for the UK to develop widespread lateral flow and PCR testing capacity for COVID-19 and almost two years into the pandemic before test numbers peaked.

If these tests had been available at the start of the pandemic, we may well have been able to stop COVID-19 from spreading so quickly and thus reduced the impact on our health systems.

When it comes to avian flu, the good news is that in the UK we already have tests that can identify the H5N1 virus, as well as effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.

And yet, while it is reassuring to already have all of this in place, none of it is available at scale.

There is still a big gap in the market for widespread, quick and reliable testing that is available within the community, which would put us in a much better position to cope with a spillover event.

Preventing a deadly pandemic with AI diagnostic tests

To address this need, our team are working with the University of Warwick to improve diagnostics for the H5N1 strain.

Specifically, we are working on an iteration of our AI-powered rapid pathogen testing platform so that it can identify the H5N1 virus.

This technology works much like facial recognition, but for pathogens.

It uses machine learning software to scan samples and can accurately identify and distinguish between different types and strains of flu viruses within minutes.

Because of the high fatality rate, an avian flu pandemic could be much more deadly than COVID-19.

This means we need to be able to instantly diagnose people who have caught the virus so that they can seek immediate medical assistance.

AI testing platforms like ours are therefore critical for preventing fatalities.

The future of diagnostic testing

Ultimately, COVID-19 showed us that we need to navigate away from centralised lab testing when dealing with a pandemic situation.

Deploying advanced AI testing platforms within the community would not only be a more effective method of identifying new cases, but this technology can also be trained to recognise multiple different pathogens, not just one, saving resources and money.

What’s more, AI tests in the community are able to gather crucial data about viruses and how they are being transmitted.

This is a much faster and more effective monitoring system than the slow inaccurate systems we had in place during COVID-19.

With all this in mind, it is therefore essential that we focus our efforts on improving diagnostics so that we’re prepared in the event that avian flu starts to surface more in humans.

Having these measures in place will also help ease the justified concerns of the public, who are growing increasingly worried the more the virus crosses over to other animals.

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