Leading UK scientists join forces to fight bird flu

As new outbreaks continue to be reported, top scientists collaborate on a new project to understand and contain the spread of avian influenza

Free range chickens outdoors in early morning light on an organic farm
Published: June 24th, 2022 at 8:42 am

Eight leading UK laboratories are now joining forces to find new ways to battle bird flu, following devastating large-scale outbreaks of the H5N1 strain.

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Headed by the research team at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), this major new consortium brings together top scientists from eight organisations. With £1.5million of funding from the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), it has been tasked with developing strategies to manage and contain the virus, following the largest and longest outbreak ever experienced in the UK. Microbiologists, epidemiologists, virologists and genomics specialists from the Royal Veterinary College, The Pirbright Institute, The Roslin Institute and Imperial College London are among the scientists taking part.

This recent outbreak of H5N1 has caused widespread death and severe illness of birds in the poultry industry, as well as wild bird populations. Brought to these shores by migrating geese in the autumn, the virus passed to flocks of hens and chickens, and from November 2021 until May this year, compulsory housing measures meant poultry farms were forced to confine birds indoors for their safety. Over 2.3 million birds were culled on UK poultry farms last winter, causing significant damage to rural economies, reported Countryfile presenter John Craven on this website in March.

Side view of female doctor using microscope in laboratory wearing protective face mask and lab coat
Eight leading laboratories are joining forces to find a solution for avian influenza/Credit:Getty

Outbreaks are still being recorded, with the most recent case this week. On 21 June, DEFRA declared a 3km Controlled Zone around a premises in Guestling Green in East Sussex. All the captive birds on the site will be humanely culled.

The toll on the UK’s wild bird population is high, and the virus is spreading from geese to seabirds and other wildfowl. On just one day in May this year, ecologist and wildlife photographer Peter Stronach found over 70 dead and dying birds of 17 species, including shelducks and gulls, at Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve, on the east coast of Scotland. Over half the carcasses found in the reserve later tested positive for bird flu.

While the risk of transmission to humans is extremely low – with only one confirmed case in England in 2021 – the new consortium will research how containing the disease in birds can help reduce future risk to humans. This will include mapping the spread of infection across species; why some birds, such as ducks, are more resistant to the virus; and exactly how it spreads from wild birds to farmed poultry. “This will feed rapidly into government decision-making and new strategies to protect the poultry industry and reduce the risk of future transmission to humans,” says Professor Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC.

The British Poultry Council welcomes the new research project, saying it comes at a crucial time. Chief executive Richard Griffiths adds: “This been the toughest, most challenging avian influenza season ever. Businesses continue to feel the commercial impact of trade barriers deriving from bird flu and Brexit combined. We hope this research will put mechanisms in place to tackle future outbreaks that risk disruption to food supply chains. In the meantime, we, as ever, urge vigilance amongst all poultry keepers. Excellent biosecurity must be practised at all times.”

When you are by the coast or in the countryside, remember not to touch dead or visibly sick birds. If you come across three or more dead wild waterfowl – swans, geese or ducks – gulls or birds of prey, or five or more dead birds of any species, report them to the DEFRA helpline: 03459 335577.

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Main image credit: To protect chickens from bird flu transmissions through wild birds, all chickens – including free range – have to be kept indoors, according to DEFRA guidelines./Credit: Getty

Authors

She now lives in Cardiff and takes every opportunity on the weekends to explore the Brecon Beacons National Park and South Glamorgan’s stunning coastline and wooded hillsides with her family, often encouraging her young son’s obsession with discovering woodland fungi.

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