Prof Brown in lab

H5N1: UK task force set up to tackle the spread of bird flu

Prof Ian Brown will oversee the investigation

Scientists from eight leading UK labs join forces to develop new ways to fight avian flu.

The consortium has been awarded £1.5 million to develop strategies to tackle 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 culling and indoor housing measures.

Although the risk to humans is low, in 2021 there was a confirmed case in humans of the tribe in South West England.

There have now been more than 120 outbreaks in farmed poultry and wild bird populations.

This winter’s bird flu outbreak is the UK’s largest and longest on record.

Scientists still don’t fully understand why these outbreaks are worse than in previous years.

H5N1 was first identified in southern China in 1996 in domesticated waterfowl.

The World Health Organization says there have been 864 cases of – and 456 deaths from – H5N1 infection in humans in 18 countries between 2003 and March 2022.

The new UK consortium will examine what measures are needed “to prevent future spread of flu with pandemic potential to humans”. The £1.5 million will be split over one year.

The researchers will also investigate why the current virus strain has led to a longer outbreak and why some birds, such as ducks, are resistant to some strains.

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

Vaccines against bird flu in humans are being developed worldwide in case a more aggressive strain of poultry jumps into the human population.

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

But the government’s top animal virologist, Professor Ian Brown, chief of virology at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), who leads the consortium, told BBC News: “Vaccine candidates have been prepared against all these emerging strains in poultry, should any of the they make that successful leap to humans.

“They change almost continuously. The concern is that we want to make sure they don’t change into a form that is more contagious to humans.

“That doesn’t seem plausible at the moment… but we have to be vigilant.”

National Court of Auditors’ government expenditure watchdog said last week the poor condition of APHA’s main lab in Weybridge could undermine the fight against animal diseases such as bird flu and that reconstruction delays could limit the UK’s response to a new outbreak of disease.

The government said it was taking steps to secure the facility’s future.

Phill Crawley leaning on the fence

Phill Crawley believes no one could have predicted the size of the outbreak

The news of the investigation was welcomed by Leicestershire egg producer and packer Phill Crawley. His farm of 550,000 chickens was struck by bird flu in November – 90% of the birds in one house died within four days; the rest had to be finished.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. The APHA was blown away by it. I’m not meeting them on that – this is the biggest outbreak the country has ever seen. I honestly don’t believe 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 broiler-oriented, ie broiler as opposed to (egg) laying hens, but what makes this species more common in the laying hen industry? How does the virus spread? Why has it been so persistent this season? Why has it been so long ago? Why has it been so brutal this year?”

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

UK Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, said it would increase the speed and quality of the investigation “hopefully in time to reduce the impact on the poultry sector”.

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