Online chitchat with Justin Bahl re wild birds and highly pathogenic bird flu

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    Martin Williams

      I’m in a Facebook group about Avian Influenza; and posted as follows – with quote from, as Guardian puts it, “Prof Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia, who studied the H5N1 strain back in 2007”:

      //Bell says she has never heard of an asymptomatic bird with the virus and therefore doesn’t think wild birds would be able to spread it over long distances. She believes the international poultry trade is the main driver of the virus and says stopping imports of chicks and birds for the trade would be an important step in reducing the risk of future outbreaks. “Originally, it was poultry to wild birds; it was not wild birds which were spreading it. It was frustrating to see wild birds being blamed … We’ve got to get out of our heads that the wild birds are the bad guys here,” she says.//

      From this article: ‘The scale is hard to grasp’: avian flu wreaks devastation on seabirds

      Led to response from and quite an exchange with “Justin B.” – ie Justin Bahl, Associate Professor, University of Georgia.

      While I’ve had discussions with various experts, this proved curious to me: Bahl very keen on dissing me, quick to do so; but also evasive, not responding to various points made [including where I showed he was wrong to suggest I haven’t engaged with researchers; the forum on this site shows engagement, plus there are some researchers I tried contacting but did not respond]. Anyhoo, here’s the exchange; may be of interest, with insight into a researcher who seems wedded to notions re wild birds spreading highly pathogenic avian influenza, evidently no thought of whether or how they can fly great distances even with what is by definition a highly debilitating and even deadly disease.

      I’ve used bold to indicate some of points I made and just ignored by Justin B buh [sorry, too tempting].

      Justin B: There is a tonne of data the supports wild bird mediated spread of HPAI, including epidemiological, genomic, and experimental, among others. It takes a very “special” reading of the literature to come to Bell’s conclusion

      Me: Says a guy posting not one link.
      Seen the spurious guff from Asia, inc ideas of spread from Poyang? Good grief.

      Justin B: Pre-CoVID I might’ve tried to engage with your ideas, explain the data and analyses (including limitations) and spend serious time to help you understand what evidence would be needed to convince me otherwise. Yours is the contrarian opinion. Yours is the opinion that goes against a the scientific consensus. Yours is the opinion that needs evidence. “Dead birds don’t fly” Get stuffed! Sure poultry production plays a role, that doesn’t mean wild bird mediated spread is not a critically important mechanism facilitating extensive and long distance spread. How is dismissing this role, despite evidence, going to help us control the outbreak or even have a productive conversation about the role domestic and wild bird ecology in the spread across biological scales

      Me: Quite some verbiage there.

      Justin B: this isn’t the first time we’ve engaged in a public forum. You’ve been glib and dismissive of serious work for the last 15+ years. Despite sharing my own research with you still seem to think researchers don’t want to know what processes underlie viral spread. If you actually cared you’d engage with the researchers doing long term studies at Mai Po or surrounding regions like Tai Wan or maybe even people at USGS. You’d find out what these groups are doing to protect vulnerable animals. Pushing a quote like the one you highlighted above is lazy

      Me: I’ve engaged with quite a few people; see forum linked to here
      This includes a post with:
      //Back in February 2004, I received email from poultry flu expert Carol Cardona, inc
      The reason I speculated that humans moving birds should not be eliminated as suspects in the spread of this disease is that in my experience sick and dead ducks don’t fly far. But, people can very easily move sick birds over many miles. The movements may be legal or illegal but in an outbreak of disease, they usually happen. I don’t think migratory birds can be eliminated as major spreaders but you can never underestimate the ability of humans to move disease.//
      – hence origin of “Dead Ducks Don’t Fly”, which was adopted by some others; glad this resonates with you. [see the link from Hon, with scaup dead 3 days after sampling]
      Among researchers – Guan Yu, who clearly knew lots re viruses, v ignorant re wild bird migrations. [link from Poyang to Qinghai spurious: looked this way at the time to various people knowing birds; see later study w tracking]
      First time wild birds blamed for hpai spread I know of was in HK – Penfold Park, related to Kowloon Park: both with captive waterfowl, resident egrets.
      Mai Po? – none then. Been v hard to find HPAI there, unless you know otherwise, which is strong evidence against wild birds as major carriers.
      How about numbers of studies funded to look at links between wild birds and bird flu transport; and those funded to look at role of poultry industry?

      As part of further engaging, I today emailed Prof Bell, with links to the two papers Hon Ip linked to here
      She’s not alone in such comments: Wild birds are not major carriers of H5N1 bird flu

      Photo here from catfish farm I happened upon in Java; not so long after learning of “integrated fish farming” FAO had recommended despite warnings may be issues with flu.
      Seen any studies funded to look into this practice and possible role in bird flu spread? As far as I know, FAO just quietly decided to stop recommending.
      But FAO was very happy to blame wild birds, even with scant evidence or evidence to contrary; handy scapegoats [not readily engaged with].
      No wild flying cows for foot n mouth, or they’d be scapegoats too.

      Justin B: hilarious! 1) you don’t seem to know the difference between anecdotes and evidence. 2) context matters. The quotes you’ve collected refer to different outbreaks. We’ve had multiple lineages cause outbreaks. Some of those were clearly circulating among poultry, others, especially since 2005, can be linked to spillover from wild birds. People claiming poultry outbreaks were linked to wild birds without evidence lead me to develop the model linked below.

      Justin B: but ignoring the role of wild birds despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary is willful ignorance and only serves your agenda instead of science or public health

      Justin B: what’s most amusing about your quotes from experts is that they are mostly from late 2005 – after the spillover to wild birds in may 2005. There were large scale outbreaks in poultry in China and surrounding countries at that time. These were likely link to poultry production and regional trade. By Feb 2006 there was overwhelming evidence for wild bird mediated viral westward spread through Eurasia and the Middle East. Without the context these quotes are meaningless

      Me: Sad.
      You deserve glib responses, don’t you?
      I respond; you blithely ignore points made or diss them. How is Mai Po surveillance not evidence? [you did mention; I respond about it, now you want to ignore]
      “The first reports of spillover to wild birds occurred in low numbers of captive waterbirds at a Hong Kong waterfowl park in 2002” as a paper you cite notes. These were not wild birds, as the sentence kind of makes clear in its absurd way. All too typical of blaming wild birds for spread.
      The 2006 spread was not via wild birds; a half decent look at the info based on knowledge of wild birds shows this.
      – you accused me of not contacting people; I showed I’ve done so. But you – well, I see Robert Webster as co author….
      “anecdotes”, eh?
      Well, you have no actual case of a wild bird spreading high path flu in the “ecosystems interactions” paper. It’s just based on lots of conjecture – and this for H9 rather than looking at the duck disabling and killing HPAIs. What on earth are those lines between, say, Japan and Middle East: a phys chem lecturer of mine would have called these “hand waving”. [ever noticed there’s a renowned railway line along much of this route?]
      Ah well.
      As I noted, the money’s in studying wild birds and flu; clearly grants continue for this.
      If you’d like to show me studies with substantial funding to really look into poultry trade and flu spread, warts and all, go ahead.
      Meanwhile, shakespearian protest too much liable to continue from you.
      And another of my points you got wrong, twisted; not ignoring wild birds – I’ve noted re how high path flu entered seabird colonies this year; not trade to Bass Rock etc.
      But 2006: some real crap there, with huge ignorance re actual wild birds.

      And as for “agenda” – it’s coming to defence of voiceless wild birds that have been unfairly scapegoated by people like Robert Webster.
      No juicy funding for this, alas; wild birds not a vested interest.

      Justin B: To be fair, I’ve published with a lot of people. I’ve even co-authored with Hon Ip – what’s your point?

      Me: you ask but not interested
      Just gormless

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