(Image via nbc15.com)
Staff Writer: Maya Arruda
When I recently visited the grocery aisle of my local Target, I saw that a dozen eggs were priced at eight to nine dollars.
It’s recession time, sure, but that is super steep price inflation from what pre-pandemic eggs cost.
At first, I thought it was just Target. Let’s be honest, Target is just Walmart but geared for the upper-middle class with prices to match. But then, I went to Stop and Shop in New Bedford, and eggs were expensive there, too.
Even in New Bedford, a dozen eggs went for six to seven dollars. However, next to the eggs on display in the supermarket, there was a taped-on sign apologizing for the inconvenience of an egg shortage.
The reason for the egg storage: Avian flu outbreak.
Avian flu has been around for a very long time, striking down flocks of pigeons or seagulls in large enough numbers to be showcased on mainstream news outlets. It has a high fatality rate, with around a 50% fatality rate in humans, according to the World Health Organization.
Like all things with the last name “flu,” Avian flu is a respiratory virus that can easily transmit from host to host. As the name suggests, Avian flu targets birds.
Due to the living conditions of many poultry farms and with egg-laying chickens being birds, Avian flu can easily infect chickens on the farm by being introduced into the area by a wild chicken getting close enough to the enclosure.
Once one farm chicken is infected, the virus can spread extremely quickly through the populace. Usually, before this can happen, a farmer will notice the chickens getting sick and intervene, culling all known and possibly infected chickens as soon as possible.
The victims, of course, include egg-laying hens. And, as anyone familiar with how the economy can tell you, scarcity increases value.
However, the avian flu is much worse than just causing egg prices to rise.
The avian flu has the ability to infect non-bird hosts, like pigs or humans. However, it is difficult for avian flu to reproduce freely in a human host due to the physiological differences between humans and birds, including differences in body temperature and host protein structure.
These differences also prevent human-human transmission when a human is infected by a bird – the virus cannot reproduce in the human, so it can’t infect anyone else.
For any biology buffs out there who want some extra detail, viruses require a host cell’s machinery to produce more viruses. A virus usually has a very small genome, far smaller than bacterial genomes, as well as a protective capsule laden with proteins.
All genetic material is in the form of nucleic acids, and this applies to viruses, too (even though viruses are not considered to be living creatures by most biologists for failing to meet the seven characteristics of life).
Nucleic acids come in two forms: DNA and RNA. The main difference structurally between them comes down to RNA having one oxygen atom more than DNA. Viral genes can be stored in single-strand DNA, double-strand DNA, or even just RNA. Covid and the flu are both single-strand RNA viruses.
Viral proteins play an important role in the infection of a host.
At least one protein on the surface of the virus needs to be able to bind to a host protein on the outer surface of the host cell. This creates a route for infection and, eventually, replication of the virus.
If the viral protein is unable to bind well to the host protein, it becomes very difficult for the virus to multiply. Protein function is the result of protein structure, and protein structure can be affected by environmental factors like pH or temperature.
Differences in body temperature affect the shape of the viral protein, but the more important aspect of why the avian flu has difficulty with human infection is because of the very different shapes of a human protein compared to a bird protein. If the host shape isn’t compatible with the viral protein shape, the virus will find infection to be very, very difficult.
Unfortunately, hosts like minx, pigs, or seals can serve as an intermediary between bird and human hosts. Moreover, if there was any takeaway lesson from the global pandemic other than not to eat sick bats, it was that respiratory viruses evolve very quickly in hosts.
Last October, Avian flu had been spotted in mink farms in Spain bearing new adaptations that researchers noted would increase the viral strain’s ability to multiply in mammals, such as humans.
Even earlier during last July, seal populations along the coast of Maine were experiencing mass mortalities from Avian flu.
These two viral facts combine to form the terrifying truth that if given enough time to evolve in intermediary hosts, the Avian flu virus will be able to adapt to the body temperature and physiology of human hosts.
When this happens, the virus will be able to spread from human to human instead of just bird to human. Given the high fatality rates of Avian flu in humans, this would easily become another black death rather than Covid Pandemic 2.0.
Despite everything, it would be unwise to panic and fear the bird flu apocalypse.
Workers in the animal-peddling business on a commercial scale are well aware of the necessary protocols to protect human populations, and biologists in the field are on high alert for any more signs of avian flu-mammal crossovers.
Panic will only be detrimental at this point in time.
Besides, the world has gained a lot more hands-on experience in responding to international threats from respiratory RNA viruses in recent years.