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What’s More Deadly—a New H5N1 Flu or the Republican Party?

You should be keeping an eye on the “bird flu”—and on the Republicans who want to slice and dice the CDC budget.

A farmer checks on his turkeys
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Bill Powers checks on turkeys sheltered to prevent exposure to avian influenza, at his family’s farm in Townsend, Delaware, on November 14, 2022.

The H5N1 “bird flu” is ripping across America, decimating bird flocks and even infecting a few humans and other mammals. Should we be concerned? Particularly since Trump is polling so well after he totally botched our response to Covid?

Keep in mind, Trump shut down the offices of pandemic preparedness in the White House and National Security Council in 2017, leaving America vulnerable to Covid; in this week’s Time magazine interview he says if he becomes president again he’ll repeat that performance by shutting down the new Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, or OPPR, which Congress authorized in 2022.

When Covid first hit the world four years ago, its fatality rate among unvaccinated people (all of us, back then) was estimated at 1.4 percent (it was 20 percent among hospitalized patients). By August 2023, when Covid had killed over 1.1 million Americans, its fatality rate had declined to an estimated 0.3 percent, in part because of vaccination, herd immunity, and an apparent diminution of the virulence of the disease as it mutated across those years.

The Spanish flu of 1918–1920 had a fatality rate of 2.5 percent.

Ebola, the disease that caused Republicans to fall into hysterics when President Obama let a physician infected with the disease back into America for treatment, has a fatality rate of an estimated 50 percent, although it mostly hit poor people in Africa with little access to modern medicine. Estimates among healthy people with access to modern medicine put the fatality rate closer to 25 percent.

But none of them can hold a candle to the bird flu.

If you have a carton of milk in your refrigerator, odds are it contains dead virus particles from the H5N1 “bird flu” that has an estimated fatality rate of 52 percent. Over 800 people worldwide have contracted the bird flu so far, and more than half have died. And now it’s spreading through the U.S. milk cow herd; the FDA reports particles of the virus have been detected in one in five milk samples nationwide.

The good news is that pasteurization entirely kills the virus; the bad news is that it’s already made the jump from birds to cows, cats, dogs, and even a dolphin. How, you may wonder, did such a deadly pathogen find its way into our milk cow herd? As Zeynep Tufekci documents for The New York Times, it may well be because “the U.S. allows farmers to feed leftover poultry bedding material—feathers, excrement, spilled seeds—to dairy and beef cattle as a cheap source of additional protein.”

For the record, this is illegal in Canada and most of the rest of the developed world; because five Republicans on the Supreme Court have legalized political bribery here, however, the Big Ag industry has successfully lobbied to allow vegetarian cows to be fed bits of birds, feathers, bird feces, and straw from bird cages.

The H5N1 bird flu has been ripping through flocks all across the world, hitting the U.S. poultry industry particularly hard: Since February 2022, over 82 million birds have been destroyed because they were infected. It’s a large part of why eggs have gone up so much in price.

This happened once before in a big way.

Back in 1916 a bird flu started killing birds around the world. In 1918 it hit U.S. Army Camp Funston in Kansas, as birds carrying the bird flu virus either infected farm animals in a nearby farming operation providing meat to the military base or directly infected humans via bird droppings or a similar route.

Once the virus hit a human or pig that was simultaneously infected with a garden-variety flu, the bird flu virus and the human flu virus exchanged DNA to become an entirely new and extraordinarily deadly flu: H1N1, or the so-called Spanish flu.

Of the 1.2 million men in U.S. Army training camps in 1918, after the virus jumped from birds to humans, fully 11.8 percent (143,986) were hospitalized just during the first three months of its spread from March to May of that year. American soldiers then carried the virus to the killing fields of World War I, where it first showed up in a big way in Spain, giving it the name we know it by today.

The Spanish flu killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide during the three years it was spreading (when the world population was a third of what it is today); Covid, by comparison, has killed an estimated seven million people worldwide since it first began spreading, in December 2019.

The H5N1 bird flu virus has now been found in 920 counties across all 50 states. It’s also spread to mink in Europe (whose respiratory systems are so similar to ours they’re used for research) and has caused seizures and death among bears in the United States.

For the H5N1 flu to move from bird-to-human transmission to human-to-human transmission will only require a small mutation in the virus. It would just have to pick up a gene that’s present in the other flu variants that currently infect people, presumably by infecting a person who’s also already infected with or recovering from a “normal” flu. Like a poultry worker who catches the seasonal flu but goes to work anyway because she doesn’t have paid sick leave.

Odds are if it stays as deadly as it currently is, it won’t spread as rapidly or as widely as a less deadly variety, simply because it would kill its hosts so quickly.

But even if its pathogenicity dropped from 52.8 percent all the way down to 2.5 percent, that would still equal the Spanish flu’s.

To deal with this potential crisis, the U.S. is already developing, in limited amounts, an H5N1 vaccine to inoculate workers in factory farms and slaughter and meat-packing operations.

However, instead of going along with government efforts to prepare for and even prevent another pandemic, Republican politicians—as a legacy from the way Trump handled Covid—are already trying to block public health efforts.

As KFF News reported last fall: “‘Public health is being politicized to a point that’s never been seen,’ said Kyle McGowan, of consulting firm Ascendant Strategic Partners, who served as chief of staff at the CDC during the Trump administration. Cutting public health spending ‘is not smart,’ he said. ‘These culture wars are now leaking into and harming public health.’”

The Republican proposal from the Labor, Health, and Human Services appropriation for 2024 includes drastic cuts across the board in public health programs. As the Republicans themselves brag in a press release about the budget proposal:

“The Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies bill provides $147 billion for programs under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee, which is $60.3 billion (29%) below the FY23 enacted level and $73 billion below the President’s Budget Request.”

In other words, the disease may not be as big a threat to the U.S. as the GOP is: Republicans in Congress just rolled out an additional new budget proposal that cuts fully one-sixth of the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, was blunt in her assessment of the GOP’s plan: “Cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are as outrageous as they are dangerous.”

But the Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Texas Representative Kay Granger, claimed the bill “works to responsibly fund programs that help improve the health and lives of the American people. It also holds agencies accountable when there has been a history of poor performance or controversial activities.”

We need to keep an eye on this virus and prepare ourselves for the possibility of another worldwide pandemic (keeping in mind nobody can predict how deadly a new H5N1 flu virus would be once it hybridizes with a human flu virus and starts to spread person to person; it may be extraordinarily deadly or just another run-of-the-mill flu).

At the same time, we need to monitor Republicans’ efforts to gut America’s public health infrastructure as they chase QAnon conspiracy theories about vaccines and supposedly nefarious activities at the CDC.

Which will turn out deadlier—a new H5N1 flu or the GOP?