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'A big concern for us': Virologist on danger of avian flu outbreak coming to Canadian cattle


A Canadian virologist says an avian flu outbreak decimating wildlife in the United States should give us pause on this side of the border.

“This is a big concern for us. We always think about these emerging diseases predominately in terms of human health and direct human impact from infections,” said Jason Kindrachuk, associate professor and Canada research chair in the department of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba.

“The reality is that we have to start thinking about agricultural industries, food security – those issues that also are common with this kind of spread.”

His comments come as the H5N1 virus, otherwise known as avian flu, spreads among cattle at dozens of dairy farms in the United States, sparking concerns about its pandemic potential for humans.

The outbreak has prompted food inspections in ground beef and grocery store milk in the U.S., with the Food and Drug Administration finding one in five dairy samples tested positive for H5N1 particles.

Important to note – virus fragments are not able to cause illness in humans, and there have been no confirmed cases of avian flu in Canadian cattle.

But in cats fed raw milk at U.S. dairy farms, there was a high mortality rate, with over 50 percent of the cats who tested positive for H5N1 dying from it.

Pasteurization takes care of infectious viruses, Kindrachuk says, which is incredibly important in terms of overall food security and the risk to humans.

“But again the more that we give this virus room to move through these animals, the more potential there is for the virus to change and adapt, and the ongoing risk that it poses certainly to meat supplies and certainly to other humans, like cats and potentially humans.”

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it is monitoring the “rapidly evolving situation closely.”

Kindrachuk notes the COVID-19 pandemic has primed more research groups, his included, to take a citizen science approach to these types of outbreaks to augment ongoing surveillance.

“I think you’re seeing groups that are extending across the aisles to work with one another very, very quickly and try to get resources in-house as quick as possible to be able to match what’s needed.”

$57 million coming to U of M for vaccine, biomanufacturing research

Meantime, it was announced Monday that the University of Manitoba, in partnership with the University of Alberta and the Universities of Saskatchewan and Calgary, will receive $57 million to conduct world-leading vaccine and biomanufacturing research. The money will help build two facilities on the Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses, allowing the U of M to play a significant role in addressing future pandemic threats in Canada and globally.

The money marks the largest federal research investment in the university’s history.

Kindrachuk says the money gives U of M researchers like himself the capacity to work directly with viruses.

“It puts Canada and Canadians in a much better and safer position than we’ve been before, and certainly for Manitobans, this provides us with a very unique opportunity for being prepared and being responsive.”

- With files from CTV’s Rachel Lagacé Pauline Chan Top Stories

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