UK scientists join forces to battle bird flu outbreaks

07-07-2022 | |
Photo: pressfoto
Photo: pressfoto

A major new research consortium has been launched with a year-long, £1.5 million funding package to develop new strategies to tackle future bird flu outbreaks.

With the UK experiencing its largest and longest bird flu outbreak this year, with more than 100 farm cases, the 8-strong consortium, headed by a team at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), will look to find new ways to contain avian influenza outbreaks.


Dubbed ‘FluMap’, the project will look closely at how the H5N1 influenza is evolving and how it is finding its way into poultry farms, often via wild birds. More than 1,100 cases have been detected in wild birds this winter, from razorbills and skuas, to ducks, geese and gannets.

The consortium will focus on building its understanding in several key areas:

  • What is it about the current virus strains that help them to form larger and longer outbreaks?
  • Understanding transmission and infection in different bird populations, including how the virus transmits from wild birds to farmed poultry, the gaps in biosecurity that allow the virus to penetrate premises and how this could be addressed.
  • Mapping and modelling the spread of infection over time and across species.
  • Why are some birds, such as ducks, more resistant to bird flu strains?
  • Developing models to predict how the viruses will evolve and spread in the future.
  • Inform risk mitigation measures in birds to reduce disease burden transmission occurring from animals to humans, to prevent future spillovers of influenza with pandemic potential in humans.

Aims to reduce the impact on the poultry sector

Christine Middlemiss, UK chief veterinary officer, said: “This new consortium will allow us to combine our expertise at a national level to increase the speed and quality of our research, ensuring we can develop new strategies to aid our efforts against this insidious disease and hopefully in time reduce the impact on the poultry sector.”

Professor Ian Brown, APHA’s head of virology and project manager, said the project would “help us to control the spread of the disease while furthering UK animal health science and ensuring we maintain our world-leading reputation in the field.”

James Mottershead, NFU poultry board chair, welcomed the government announcement, saying it was great to see such a positive step being taken to help the industry tackle the disease in the future: “Avian influenza has been devastating for so many poultry farmers across the country, causing great distress emotionally, physically, mentally and financially for farming families. We want to work with the government to minimise the impacts of any future avian influenza outbreaks, so we do not experience another year like this one.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about avian influenza. Hopefully this research can help us understand more about the disease and how we can prevent it, and ultimately put bird keepers in a better position to protect their flocks.”

Vaccinations are just part of the project

The New Scientist reported that while the project wasn’t explicitly looking at bird flu vaccines, some of its research on the evolution of the H5N1 virus could feed into the future development of vaccines, currently being explored by the European Commission.

Information will be shared with international partners and members of the consortium will attend a global session this month, hosted by the US Department of Agriculture, where they will influence and coordinate future investment into animal influenzas on an international basis.

Members of the consortium include the Pirbright Institute, the Royal Veterinary College, the Roslin Institute, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, the University of Leeds and the University of Nottingham.

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Tony Mcdougal Freelance Journalist
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