The French ministry of agriculture is considering preventive vaccination of poultry against avian influenza as an essential part of a more targeted battle against the almost annually occurring major outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the country.
Geese and duck farms in the far south-west of France have been affected by avian influenza since 2015, causing serious business continuity issues. Photo: ANP
This winter and spring, France once again registered 475 outbreaks ofavian influenza at poultry farms, the vast majority being geese or duck farms in the far south-west of the country. This outbreak follows similar epidemics in 2015-17 which cost the poultry industry hundreds of millions in damage and lost revenue.
Foie gras hardest hit
Hardest hit was the foie gras industry which is strongly concentrated in the Landes and Gers regions and neighbouring areas near the border with Spain. During the earlier outbreaks, major importers of French foie gras, like China and Japan, banned the luxury product for months. Farmers faced extra costs to cover the land they use for their animals to protect them against infection by migrating wild birds, although these costs have been largely subsidised by the government.
The minister for agriculture and food, Julien Denormandie, decided to take no chances and introduced drastic measures as soon as the first infections were discovered in late November. Large areas of the country were declared emergency zones with associated heightened biosecurity measures and restrictions on the transport and movement of animals. For the first time, not only animals at infected premises were culled but also all those on farms in the direct vicinity. Altogether, no less than 1.3 million ducks and other poultry have been culled, according to figures from the ministry of agriculture.
Minister Denormandie, who visited the region several times, promised – as is usual in France – to fully compensate the farmers, as well as companies further up in the chain from the state coffers. So far, € 89.5 million has already been paid out in advance while the final costs are still being calculated.
But Denormandie also desperately wants to try to prevent future costly outbreaks of avian influenza in the country. Therefore, he invited representatives of all the organisations in the poultry industry to take part in a number of online meetings to discuss a more systemic approach.
“Those meetings offered an opportunity to acknowledge the engagement of all involved in the sector itself, including the national and regional authorities, both in the management of the crisis and the close consultation that there has been since March to establish a new route to beat avian influenza,” the minister said.
Anticipate, Prevent and Adapt
To establish that route, 6 ‘main axes’ of approach have been determined. In the first place, the ministry says, it is important to know in real time how many animals there are at all the poultry holdings in the country and particularly in the most vulnerable regions. Next, systems need to be in place to analyse the risk of avian influenza appearing and predict the necessary reduction in density at poultry holdings to mitigate the risk of further spread of the disease.
”...a positive way to create a system that protects the whole industry better...”
Poultry farmers and other companies also need to further improve governance, while biosecurity practices require further improvement at all levels along the product chain. Last but not least, the plan involves undertaking an analysis of the impact and feasibility of preventive vaccination from 2022. “The collective work continues. The route ahead is: Anticipate, Prevent and Adapt. This should offer us a positive way to create a system that protects the whole industry better, based on risk analysis, and one which takes into account the diversity of our production,” minister Denormandie concluded.
Spotting emerging avian influenza strains
Since 2015, multiple European countries have faced the same issues as France with avian influenza. Large producers in Poland and the Netherlands have battled recurring outbreaks which started earlier than in the past and lasted well into spring, instead of dying out at the end of winter. Just recently, in mid-May, the Netherlands reported an outbreak, and in Poland, the situation was even worse. The number of outbreaks of the H5N8 strain – 59 had been reported by the Polish authorities between 9 and 19 April alone – have had far-reaching consequences. A British meat buyer has warned that it expected shortages on the UK market.
Researchers work to better understand avian influenza
With the virus getting close to becoming endemic, researchers want to gain a better understanding of it, as is the case in France. Scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland are seeking to develop tests to spot emerging strains of bird flu which are categorised as mild but have the potential to become more dangerous. Their 3-year € 1.2 million study will focus on several types of bird flu viruses that are not presently categorised alongside severe strains known to be a threat, but which are linked to recent outbreaks of infections with severe symptoms, high death rates and which pose a risk to public health.
Assessing potential risks
The team may be able to compare the impact of typically low-risk strains of flu with those that have evolved to become more harmful. They will also investigate how these viruses interact with poultry and wild birds, to better assess the potential risks from viruses that pass between the two groups. Experiments will test the impact of the strains on various tissues, to check for signs of severe disease that would be expected to occur in domestic or wild birds.
Mild strains becoming more virulent
“Bird flu is a major challenge and concern for the poultry industry. We know that mild H5N7 strains can become very dangerous, but it is becoming clear that other mild strains are – to our surprise – becoming more virulent. It is critical that we seek to understand better the risk associated with these potentially harmful viruses,” said Professor Lonneke Vervelde from the Roslin Institute.
The project, known as FluNuance, is funded by the International Coordination of Research on Infectious Animal Diseases (ICRAD). It will be carried out in collaboration with Royal GD Animal Health in the Netherlands, the University of Veterinary Medicine, Hannover, Germany, the National Veterinary Research Institute of Poland, and the National Food Chain Safety Office Veterinary Diagnostic Directorate in Hungary.