Concerns remain about infection patterns and lack of immunity in domestic birds.
Some of the UK’s seabirds are developing immunity to avian influenza (AI) according to newly published research by FluMap.
FluMap, an eight member consortium of Britain’s top scientific institutions, and headed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), was set up in 2022 to explore and develop ways to combat avian influenza. This group of world experts developed laboratory tools to dissect the immune response in avian influenza infected birds and preliminary research discovered that some species of seabirds such as Northern Gannets and Shags were showing signs of immunity. Initial findings also suggested that, when airborne, the virus can only travel less than metres.
Although this research is of significant importance, there are some reasons to be cautious about the findings for now. Firstly, the investigations were carried out on a relatively small number of birds exposed to the H5N1 strain. Whilst some birds did show signs of resistance to avian influenza, they were still noted to be carriers of the virus and so would be able to pass it onto other animals. Also, avian influenza viruses mutate regularly, so as antibody levels change, there is no guarantee that this immunity will be passed onto the offspring.
FluMap has been granted a further £3.3 million from the UK Research and Innovation’s Tracking Infections programme and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for further research in understanding the transmission patterns of this deadly disease. They will also explore the virus’ evolution, the potential into predicting future strains and immunity in a wider range of species. A further £3.2 million has been allocated to a sister consortium to research the potential for human transmission.
This exciting collaborative research was welcomed by Professor Ian Brown, APHA’s Director of Scientific Services and Project Manager who notes, “APHA has led this consortium of the greatest minds from eight world-leading British institutions to address the gap in our understanding of avian influenza and I am excited that we have already made some important discoveries.”
“Bringing together all our national experts increases the speed and quality of our understanding of avian influenza and how it behaves in the UK” was how the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, responded to the news, continuing that, “This critical research will aid our development of further strategies to protect our birds and minimise the impact of this dreadful disease.”
The impact of avian influenza on birds
Typical ‘seasonal’ patterns are changing – especially the H5N1 strain – making it more difficult to predict.
Between 2020 and 2023 there were over 350 infected premises detected with highly pathogenic avian influenza in the UK. And with a mortality rate of up to 100%, avian influenza can have a devastating impact on flocks, farms and finances. Currently there is no cure and worldwide, only a few vaccines are being trialled with a very limited scope. French authorities are currently rolling out a vaccine targeted at ducks, due to them being a strong local spreader of avian influenza, but there are no current plans to implement a vaccine in the UK.
Remaining vigilant and biosecure
The discovery of immunity in some birds is encouraging. However, it should be remembered that wild birds are still the primary spreaders of avian influenza in the UK and any complacency around relaxing biosecurity measures could be deadly.
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