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WSU receives grant to study bird flu, other diseases in livestock

CDC-funded work to focus on cows, goats, sheep illness

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: June 13, 2024, 8:31am

Washington State University will get $1.5 million to study respiratory diseases in livestock, like bird flu, in the Pacific Northwest and their potential spread to humans.

Since 2021, the newest avian influenza strain –- H5N1 – has infected poultry across the world, but its spread to wild birds, other mammals and now dairy cows worries experts about the potential impacts on humans. So far, three farmworkers have been diagnosed with bird flu associated with a U.S. outbreak in cows, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk to the public remains low.

The university’s Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory will focus their research on small- and medium-sized hosts, like cows, goats and sheep, according to a press release. The project is being funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington Department of Health.

“These are species that have the potential to spread diseases to humans,” said Dr. Thomas Waltzek, a virologist at WADDL in the College of Veterinary Medicine who is leading the new project. “It’s all about detecting these diseases quickly, determining if the viruses have pandemic potential and immediately taking corrective actions to hopefully prevent a pandemic.”

Although the lab has been tracking H5N1 in domestic and wild birds, its jump to dairy was “unexpected,” according to the university release.

The spread into dairy cattle has affected more than 80 herds across the country after being first identified in Texas in March. Last week, Iowa became the 10th state with a confirmed infection. Cows can usually recover within two weeks, but the disease can negatively affect milk production.

WSU’s project will expand work that the lab is already doing as part of the Pathogen Genomics Centers of Excellence, a national network of labs whose focus is to quickly detect viruses that could have pandemic potential.

The lab has also recently partnered with veterinarians and biologists who recently documented the bird flu spread from seabirds to harbor seals near Fort Flagler State Park in the northern portion of Puget Sound. The outbreak had killed more than 1,700 wildbirds and infected a small number of harbor seals in the same area.

Dr. Kevin Snekvik, Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory executive director, said in a statement that the number of wild birds dying from this disease is “staggering” and expressed concern of its spread to other mammals like raccoons, skunks and seals.

“Luckily, it is not highly pathogenic for humans,” he said. “We hope a mutation doesn’t occur that leads to something like that, but we need to be closely monitoring the situation.”

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.