Bird flu claims targeting Bill Gates feed conspiracy theories

Amid fears of bird flu spreading to other species, social media posts and articles claim the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded University of Wisconsin research to make the virus transmissible to humans, some implying an intentional effort to create a new pandemic. This is false; a 2009 grant to study the virus fueled controversy but did not create a variant capable of human infection, according to the researchers and an independent expert.

"Looks as though H5N1, also known as 'bird flu,' might just be the next 'pandemic' the globalists are planning to unleash – thanks, in part, to a $9.5 million grant the Gates Foundation awarded to the University of Wisconsin - Madison to make H5N1 transmissible to humans," said a June 19, 2024 Facebook post.

Some posts shared a June 19 headline on Slay News, a website that AFP has previously fact-checked for spreading false claims about Gates and other topics, which said: "Bill Gates Funded Bioweapons Experiments to Spread Bird Flu to Humans."

Similar claims rocketed across XFacebook, Gettr and Instagram, with many sharing articles or links alleging this was "bio-terrorist" research. Some linked to comments from an X account affiliated with cardiologist Peter McCullough, who has spread misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines.

The McCullough Foundation post claimed the Gates Foundation "funded bioterrorist-like activities involving H5N1, providing blueprints for other bad actors who may want to create a bioweapon."

<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post taken July 1, 2024</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post taken July 1, 2024


<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post taken July 1, 2024</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post taken July 1, 2024

Other users sought to legitimize widely debunked claims that the Covid-19 pandemic was planned and that a new pandemic is forthcoming, while also targeting Gates -- the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder --  and the Gates Foundation, the objects of multiple false claims on health topics.

The posts come amid growing concerns about avian flu, also known as H5N1 and a subvariant H5N2, spreading to other species, including humans. H5N1 first emerged in 1996 but since 2020, the number of outbreaks in birds has surged exponentially, alongside an increase in the number of infected mammals (archived here).

The World Health Organization has said that from 2003 to May of this year, 891 cases of human H5N1 infections, including 463 deaths, were reported from 24 countries (archived here). H5N1 has been spreading for weeks among dairy cow herds in the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, with a small number of cases found among humans (archived here).

Bird flu rarely spreads person-to-person -- more commonly spreading from animal to human, Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health (archived here), said in an interview published on the university's website. "Most infections occur when humans have contact with sick or dead infected animals without wearing personal protective equipment," he said (archived here).

The first laboratory-confirmed human case of infection with H5N2 avian influenza virus has been reported from Mexico -- a man whose death remains under investigation, according to the WHO.

But the claims of an intentional effort to spread bird flu are baseless. A research grant made by the Gates Foundation to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009 was aimed at identifying potential mutations of avian influenza that would serve as early warnings of potential pandemic viruses, according to a news release  (archived here).

A study by the Wisconsin scientists published in 2012 explained the research seeking to understand transmission of the virus (archived here).

"Our findings emphasize the need to prepare for potential pandemics caused by influenza viruses possessing H5 HA, and will help individuals conducting surveillance in regions with circulating H5N1 viruses to recognize key residues that predict the pandemic potential of isolates, which will inform the development, production and distribution of effective countermeasures," the researchers said.

<span>This handout picture courtesy of CDC and NIAID released on May 24, 2024 shows a colorized transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza A H5N1 virus particles (gold), grown in Madin-Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) epithelial cells </span><div><span>CDC and NIAID</span></div>
This handout picture courtesy of CDC and NIAID released on May 24, 2024 shows a colorized transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza A H5N1 virus particles (gold), grown in Madin-Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) epithelial cells

A University of Wisconsin spokesperson said the 2009 research was not designed to create a virus capable of infecting humans.

"This research was not aimed at making H5N1 avian influenza transmissible to humans. It sought to understand how avian influenza circulating in nature might develop mutations that could allow it to spread between mammals," the spokesperson said in a June 28 email.

"This could help with the development of an early warning system in which scientists would be able to monitor wildly circulating avian influenza for concerning mutations. Doing so would help scientists prepare for avian influenza viruses with pandemic potential through the development of therapeutics and vaccines and other public health interventions aimed at viruses with concerning mutations."

The research "builds on earlier work by Prof. Yoshihiro Kawaoka and his colleagues that identified a crucial mutation that contributes to the lethality of avian influenza viruses in mammalian species. This information is being used by the WHO and the CDC to evaluate the pandemic potential of avian influenza viruses circulating in nature," the statement added.

The Gates Foundation said in a July 1 email that the claims of funding to make the virus transmissible to humans are "false" without elaborating.

Concerns on misuse

The research, which created a variant aimed at infecting ferrets, did spark controversy in the scientific community at the time, according to Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (archived here), who wrote a 32-page report on the research in 2013 (archived here).

Gronvall told AFP on July 2 that the variant used by researchers "clearly wasn't" transmissible to humans and "was not very transmissible even in ferrets."

Her report noted that publication of the research was postponed amid concerns that the effort could be replicated "for harmful purposes." But the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity ended up approving the publication without redactions (archived here).

The board concluded that the findings "do not appear to provide information that would enable the near‐term misuse of the research in ways that would endanger public health or national security."

Gronvall told AFP that such research "could absolutely be misused," but also "could be very well used to help us prevent or mitigate a natural disease outbreak or pandemic." She said the study did contribute to better knowledge of the virus.

Gain-of-function research is the topic of considerable scientific debate. Gronvall said so-called dual-use or gain of function studies "are always controversial" but remain a useful public health tool.

Funding for certain types of such work was paused (archived here) by the US government in 2014, although the restriction was lifted in 2017 and new protocols developed (archived here and here).

If the research involves "potential pandemic pathogens" -- or bacteria and viruses that are likely highly transmissible -- it requires increased oversight from the Department of Health and Human Services (archived here and here).

Read more of AFP's coverage of health misinformation here.