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This will be a brief post, mostly because I had planned on other subjects and written them out, but current events are making H5N1 rather unignorable.

If you're unaware, H5N1 is a highly pathogenic version of the Avian flu. H5N1 is a varietal that has been around for quite some time but has, largely, been unable to break into mass-human exposure. Up until recently, we only saw the occasional person become infected with the virus, sometimes after obvious close contact with birds and sometimes not. Poor conditions in massive poultry farm operations have, it's thought, helped to propagate the avian flu in general (not specifically H5N1). And now, over the last year or so, we've seen a startling increase in crossover for H5N1 into other mammalian carriers, such as seals. This might not seem like a big deal to you since there have already been reported human cases of H5N1, and even some deaths, but this is a big deal, and it's big in part due to some very recent developments.


34 dairy farms across 9 states have reported H5N1 infections. Perhaps because of the lack of similarity between cows and birds, the illnesses reported among livestock have not been very severe. However, it has been shown that H5N1 has successfully spread from cow to cow, meaning it is not relying on common exposure from the same bird or birds to infect the cows, and meaning that the virus has evolved enough to spread from a brand new kind of host. This mammal-to-mammal transmission makes it much more likely that the virus can make the leap from cows to humans, or from cows to pigs to humans, for instance. And before we jump to that conclusion, the viral load of milk from cows infected with the virus? Super high. So it is entirely possible that people could get infected by consumption of raw milk. One worker on one of these dairies did contract H5N1–most likely from the same vector as the cows, rather than from the cows directly–but luckily suffered only some conjunctivitis. Farm cats, however, have not been so lucky. Many have been infected and killed in this recent proliferation of the virus in dairies.

Cows represent a vastly different vector for H5N1 than undomesticated birds, as people are quite frequently in contact with cows and with products made by or with cows–cheese, milk, and of course beef, are all potential methods of transmission should we be unlucky enough for the virus to mutate and survive within the product. And, as you remember from COVID, every single infection–of any type–is an opportunity for a virus such as this. They can mutate more severe symptoms, new methods of transmission, or the ability to infect new hosts.

50% Mortality

H5N1 is, unlike COVID, generally quite lethal. More than half of the people who are infected with H5N1 die. This kind of mortality rate makes H5N1 an entirely different ballgame from COVID. Whereas COVID was never especially lethal, even with a death toll in the millions, H5N1 presents with every opportunity to cut down far more of those infected. This is a pretty scary possibility. It's important to note, however, that we're speaking completely hypothetically. H5N1 does not, as yet, transmit from person to person, and that is a necessary mutation for a pandemic to occur. Along with that mutation could come a moderation of lethality, as all viruses tend to trend in that direction over time.

However, an H5N1 pandemic would grind civilization to a halt in a way that even COVID didn't. COVID was a novel virus when it came onto the scene and we learned as we went, with the slow understanding that the mortality rate for COVID was around 2%. In the early days we went from a sort of lowballing of fear to what I would call an adequate compensation in the lockdowns when COVID truly took off worldwide. But with H5N1, we know what we're dealing with, largely, and that fear will set in immediately. There will be no hemming or hawing. People will self-isolate without needing government mandates, and those will be coming in fast behind our instincts lest world economies lose half of their workforce.

An H5N1 pandemic, to put it bluntly, would be a Hollywood pandemic. The military would be out distributing rations (if we're lucky) and setting up checkpoints or closing down hotspots. Local, state, and federal governments would be overwhelmed trying to support hospitals. It would be difficult to find food, to receive medical care, or to conduct any kind of routine as we know it.

It would also be a much shorter pandemic than COVID, as H5N1's lethality would burn out its vector population quickly and force those uninfected to change their lives to avoid infection. Whereas people can come to work through COVID, can unintentionally infect others, can get COVID and then go back to work and then get COVID again, this sort of perpetual cycle would likely not exist for H5N1, or at least would be severely diminished. Variations of H5N1, for instance, can be transmitted from a new host in as little as six hours, making the incubation rate staggeringly fast.

In short: keep an eye on this. If signs are pointing toward further spread of H5N1 among cows or other mammals, or particularly if we hear word of human transmission from cows or other mammals, it's probably time to think about your basic necessities and stock up on them. You're going to want enough food to last you for weeks or months, potentially water for the same duration, and any applicable medication. Imagine yourself in an impenetrable bubble–anything outside it stays outside, and you're living off whatever is inside it. Make sure your bubble has enough of what you need. PPE like masks could be useful but we surely don't know enough about modes of transmission to be thinking about that; complete avoidance is your best tactic. If you have people you need to care for, you need to plan to accommodate them in your bubble. Now isn't the time to panic, or to buy rice in bulk. But it is the time to start planning.