UK working group set up to tackle the spread of bird flu

Professor Ian Brown will oversee the research

Scientists from eight of the UK’s top laboratories are joining forces to develop new ways to fight bird flu.

The consortium received 1,5 1.5 million to develop strategies to address recent outbreaks of the H5N1 strain that causes serious illness and death in birds.

This version of bird flu has hit the poultry industry hard, with killings and indoor housing measures.

While the risk to humans is low, in 2021, the human case of the strain was confirmed in the South West of England.

There are now more than 120 cases in farmed poultry and wild bird populations.

The outbreak of bird flu this winter is the largest and largest ever in the United Kingdom.

Scientists do not yet fully understand why these cases were worse than in previous years.

H5N1 was first detected in southern China in 1996 in domestic waterfowl.

The World Health Organization says that between 2003 and March 2022, there were 864 cases – and 456 deaths – from human H5N1 infection in 18 countries.

The new UK consortium will look at what measures are needed “to prevent future flu pandemics with a potential human pandemic”. 1,5 1.5 million is available in one year.

Researchers will also be tasked with finding out why the current strain of the virus has led to a larger epidemic and why some birds, such as ducks, are resistant to certain strains.

They will look at how gaps in biosafety may have allowed the virus to be transmitted from wild birds to farmed poultry.

Globally, avian influenza vaccines are being developed in humans in the event that a more aggressive strain is transmitted from poultry to the human population.

The UK consortium will not be involved in the development of human vaccines.

However, the government’s top animal ionologist, Professor Ian Brown, Head of Virology at the Animal and Plant Health Service (APHA), which leads the consortium, told BBC News: “There are candidates for vaccines being prepared against all of these emerging strains in poultry if one of them makes this successful jump on humans.

“They are changing on an almost constant basis. The concern is that we want to ensure that they do not change into a form that is more contagious to humans.

“That does not seem reasonable at the moment … but we have to be careful.”

The National Audit Office said last week that the poor condition of APHA’s central laboratory in Weybridge could undermine the fight against animal diseases such as bird flu and that delays in its reconstruction could limit the UK’s response to another disease epidemic.

The government has said it is taking steps to secure the future of the facility.

Phil Crawley leaning against the fence

Phill Crawley believes that no one could predict the scale of the epidemic

The news of the research was welcomed by Leicestershire egg producer and packer Phill Crawley. His 550,000-hen farm was hit by bird flu in November – 90% of the birds in a shed died within four days. the rest had to be killed.

“I have never seen anything like it. APHA was shocked by it. I do not blame them for it – it was the biggest epidemic the country has ever seen. I honestly do not think anyone could have prepared for an outbreak of this magnitude.” , he told BBC News.

He added that he wanted the new consortium to answer some key questions about the outbreak.

“Previously it was more meat-oriented, ie chicken as opposed to mattresses (eggs), but what made this strain more prevalent in the mattress industry? How does the virus spread? This season, why was it so persistent? Why did it take so long? “Why was it so brutal this year?”

The consortium brings together microbiologists, epidemiologists, virologists and genomics specialists from APHA, the Pirbright Institute, the Royal Veterinary College, the Roslin Institute, Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Nottingham.

The UK’s Director of Veterinary Medicine, Christine Middlemiss, said it would increase the speed and quality of research “and we hope that the impact on the poultry sector will be reduced in time”.

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