2023 Magazine - Silver

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) used to be a disease that almost exclusively affected poultry, but in 2004 it spread to wild birds in China. Like humans who unwittingly carried SARS-CoV-2 on airplanes from Wuhan to Europe, the United States and beyond in early 2020, infected wild birds are often asymptomatic, so they can migrate carrying the virus. With such broad distribution of HPAI last year, Paul Tullis writes, “there is now a very real concern that the spread of a virus that originated with human activity — mass poultry farming — is now coming around to bite humans back.” He describes the biology of the disease and how it can take just five steps for a common HPAI to develop the capability— or “gain of function”—of making a mammal sick and capable of passing the novel virus to another of its species. Tullis reported that American and European officials insist their inspection and culling programs are sufficient to keep HPAI-infected poultry out of the food supply. But in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, programs to reimburse chicken farmers for culling flocks when bird flu is detected simply don’t exist, he wrote. Judge Llewellyn Smith, a documentary film producer, called the Tullis piece “an eye-opening story of Dutch researchers up against extreme odds to keep highly pathogenic avian influenza from becoming the next pandemic. The science of prevention is fascinating, and the conundrum it delineates deeply disturbing. Are we ready to trade the easy convenience of cheaper eggs and poultry for biosecurity that could save our lives?” In his reporting, Tullis said, he followed up reports of culls on poultry farms resulting from bird flu outbreaks. “With a few calls to experts, I learned that the disease is getting worse by every measure, increasing the risk that the origin of the next pandemic will be the animal production systems we have developed,” Tullis said. “I'm grateful that the Bulletin continues to fund such deeply reported enterprise features on public health.”