H5N1: A British task force set up to combat the spread of bird flu

Professor Ian Brown will oversee the research

Scientists from eight leading UK laboratories are joining forces to develop new ways to fight bird flu.

The consortium has been awarded £1.5 million to develop strategies to deal with recent outbreaks of the H5N1 strain causing severe disease and death in birds.

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

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

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

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

Scientists don’t yet fully understand why these outbreaks were worse than in previous years.

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

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

The new UK consortium will examine what measures are needed “to prevent future spread of influenza with pandemic potential in humans”. The £1.5m is split over a year.

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

They will examine how gaps in biosecurity may have allowed the virus to spread from wild birds to farmed poultry.

Globally, human bird flu vaccines are being developed in case a more aggressive strain crosses over from poultry into the human population.

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

But the government’s leading animal virologist, Professor Ian Brown, head of virology at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), who leads the consortium, told BBC News: “There are candidate vaccines prepared against all these emerging strains in poultry if any of them make this 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’s more contagious to humans.

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

Public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office said last week that the poor condition of APHA’s main laboratory in Weybridge could undermine the fight against animal diseases like bird flu and that delays in rebuilding it could limit the UK’s response to another outbreak.

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

Phill Crawley leaning on a fence

Phill Crawley thinks no one could have predicted the scale of the outbreak

News of the research was welcomed by Leicestershire egg producer and packer Phill Crawley. His farm of 550,000 hens was hit by bird flu in November – 90% of the birds in a shed died in four days; the rest had to be cut down.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. APHAs have been overwhelmed by this. I’m not dissing them on this – it’s been the biggest outbreak the country has ever seen. I honestly don’t believe anyone one 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 focused on broilers, i.e. meat chicken as opposed to layers (eggs), but what made this strain more prevalent in the meat industry? layers? How does the virus spread? This season, why has it been so persistent? Why has it been so long? Why has it been 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 chief veterinarian, Christine Middlemiss, said it would increase the speed and quality of research “hopefully in time to reduce the impact on the poultry sector”.

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