A strange strain of highly contagious bird flu is swooping through New York City. Fortunately, the risk to humans is believed to be low at the present time, but unfortunately the strain has taken a fancy to the city’s cats.
More than 450 domestic cats from shelters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island have been placed under quarantine after 45 cats contracted the H7N2 strain of the avian flu virus last month, according to New York’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The army of cats will undergo lab tests at the quarantine shelter in Queens and will be released when they appear to be back to health, hopefully in 45 to 90 days' time.
The virus was first detected in the Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC) shelters, where around 50 cats were suffering from running noses, sneezing, red eyes, and coughing. The shelters are warning New Yorkers who adopted cats from them between November 12 and December 15 to keep an eye out for these symptoms.
Cats on the move to the quarantine zone in Queens, NYC. ASPCA
It’s a pretty unusual state of affairs because the H7N2 strain has never been documented in cats before, nor is it clear how the virus spread so quickly. They added that there’s only ever been one cat-to-human transmission associated with this outbreak – a veterinarian at the ACC Manhattan shelter – and no cases of human-to-human transmission.
As you can guess, the avian influenza virus usually infects birds, however strains can mutate and “gain the ability” to infect other organisms, in this instance cats. Although it’s actually quite hard for the virus to mutate and infect humans, certain strains of bird flu have spread to humans, such as in 2015 when around 229 died in east Asia from the H7N9 virus.
However, fear not, help is at hand. The CDC have got their hands on the genetic sequence of the virus strain and they’re studying it to see if there are genetic changes known to be associated with the ability to infect humans. So far, so good, with the risk appearing to be very low.
But then again, if one animal was to unleash a deadly virus onto human civilization, it would be cats.