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June 2024

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Taking a Backseat to Politics and Profit

​With more than 90 million birds infected across 48 states, and the bird flu discovered in one of four samples of milk taken from across the country, this outbreak of bird flu is the deadliest and most widespread in history.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s disastrous COVID response led to emotional reaction superseding scientific evidence, along with hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. With bird flu, the CDC is poised to repeat this mistake.

​Global knowledge on COVID continues to evolve: in April the World Health Organization released new guidelines on airborne pathogens that includes respiratory diseases like COVID and bird flu (the CDC long denied that COVID was airborne, insisting it was only spread by droplets). The fact that respiratory diseases like influenza are airborne wasn’t a new discovery—more so it was an acknowledgment of what many virologists have been saying for a decade. In the early days of COVID, the WHO focused its advice on rigorous hand washing and downplayed the effectiveness of masks. Because of these lax guidelines, employers were reluctant to provide protective equipment, leading to 3,600 deaths among healthcare workers in the first year of the pandemic.

​In a CDC web page deleted as of May 15, an advisory committee to the CDC ignores the WHO’s findings regarding airborne viruses: whereas the WHO makes no distinction in distance traveled among different diseases, the CDC claims some viruses only travel a short distance and others travel farther. Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, calls these distinctions “totally artificial,” and likens the spread of pathogens to cigarette smoke moving through a room, with those closer to the smoker in greater danger of inhalation than those who are more distant, but both are still at risk of inhalation. “You think viruses stop after three feet and drop to the ground? That is absurd,” he stated.

​The CDC also prescribes loose-fitting masks over the far more effective and expensive N95 masks. In an online statement, the National Nurses’ United Union said these guidelines “prioritized employer costs and profits (often under the umbrella of ‘feasibility’ and ‘flexibility’) over robust protections.”

The CDC has drastically scaled back its recommendations regarding COVID, changing the isolation period from two weeks at the start of the pandemic, to the current duration of two days. A big push for returning people to workplaces comes from real estate lobbyists, who stand to lose millions from unused commercial offices.

​While doctors and nurses say the CDC isn’t doing enough, agricultural and dairy lobbyists say their response is too much. The Biden administration has taken an on-the-ground approach to testing dairy farms to monitor and track the spread of bird flu. “It’s over-reach. They don’t need to do that. They need to back off,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in an interview.

While Texas was the first state where bird flu was diagnosed, officials have refused to allow the CDC to conduct field studies there. Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding doesn’t see bird flu as a CDC matter: “Decouple it from an FDA and a CDC issue,” he said, “This is a workforce concern that really ought to be expressed from the USDA and Secretary [Tom] Vilsack.”

​Not only is Tom Vilsack secretary of the USDA, he’s a former executive at Dairy Management Incorporated, a dairy lobbying firm. Vilsack was secretary of the USDA under Obama, and during his tenure he implemented a new poultry inspection system that let meatpacking employees take over some inspecting duties from USDA personnel. During the public comment period on these new regulations, one USDA inspector wrote, “If this proposal goes through and inspectors are cut, I would not feel safe enough to feed [poultry] to my family.” Vilsack, who advocated for shifting away from small-farm production of dairy in favor of consolidating it to a few industrial farms during his time as a lobbyist, says this concentrated production is one reason why bird flu is so prevalent in milk.

​Because it’s an animal disease, responsibility for testing falls on the USDA. Currently, farmers are only required to test if they’re moving lactating cows across state lines, leaving millions of cows untested. The Biden administration recently announced financial incentives for farmers to voluntarily test their workers and cows for the virus. Farms can be compensated with up to $28,000 for profits lost to testing, though some say this isn’t enough. This is in addition to compensation provided by the USDA for livestock culled to prevent disease spread. Testing every animal would be time-consuming and expensive, so if just one animal tests positive the entirety are killed.

​This strain of bird flu represents the culmination of multiple factors: the destruction of wetlands for development means migratory waterfowl, the primary carriers of bird flu, have fewer places to land and when they do, they have less space to congregate, making it easier for disease to spread. And because agriculture has become industrialized and only a few corporations create the majority output of meat, one infected bird could infect thousands of cattle and chickens at a single farm.

Because of the laissez-faire approach to disease by the USDA, we don’t know how many cows are currently incubating the virus. We do know, thanks to a recent collaborative study between St. Jude’s and the University of Copenhagen, that cows share the same flu receptors that humans do, providing one less mutation the virus would have to adopt to infect humans. Whether bird flu is contained or is allowed to spread further, possibly infecting humans, depends on where our government’s priorities lie.


  • Bryce Flanagan

    Bryce Flanagan moved from Sacramento, CA to Taos County in 2016, and has lived in Questa for two years. He's passionate about the unique and beautiful wildlife of our state and is a regular contributor to the Questa Del Rio News.

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