UK study finds some seabirds developing avian influenza immunity

Northern Gannets and Shag showing signs of immunity
calendar icon 23 October 2023
clock icon 3 minute read

As part of a major research consortium announced last June, the UK’s top scientists have discovered that some seabirds are demonstrating immunity to avian influenza, according to a news report from the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA).

The eight-strong FluMap consortium, headed by the world-leading research team at the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA), has developed laboratory tools that can dissect the immune response in birds that have been exposed to avian influenza viruses in their lifetime.

Preliminary investigations in a small sample size of some species of seabird, including Northern gannets and Shag, revealed specific immunity to H5N1 showing exposure and recovery in a proportion of birds. However, avian influenza viruses are prone to change and so antibody levels will likely decline over time with next year’s offspring not guaranteed to be immune suggesting there are no great population level benefits yet.

Scientists hope to look at the effect of antibodies on infection, to better predict the emergence of new viruses with different protein combinations in the future, allowing experts to stay one step ahead to safeguard animal and human health, given 60% of new human diseases originate in animals.

To further understanding of avian influenza and its impact on wild bird species, the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Tackling Infections programme and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have  granted £3.3 million to the consortium.

A further £3.2 million has been allocated for a sister consortium, focussing on the potential for human transmission. Partners from both consortia will work closely together in a One Health approach. A joined-up ‘One Health’ approach aims to sustainably balance and optimise the health of people, animals and the environment, recognising that these things are interdependent. This research will allow for better understanding of the potential impacts of animal-human-environment avian influenza interactions. Cross government community collaboration is key in effectively responding to and preparing for evolving threats like avian influenza.

“APHA has led this consortium of the greatest minds from eight world-leading British institutions to address gaps in our understanding of avian influenza and I am excited that we have already made some important discoveries, particularly around the genetic makeup of avian influenza viruses," said professor Ian Brown, APHA’s director of scientific services and project manager. “I am pleased that with further funding this work can continue - helping 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."

“I am delighted this research project has received further funding. Bringing together all our national experts increases the speed and quality of our understanding of avian influenza and how it behaves in the UK," added UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss. “This critical research will aid our development of further strategies to protect our birds and minimise the impact of this dreadful disease.”

The new funding will respond to the evolving nature of avian influenza and further understanding of:

• 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

• the role of immunity in wild birds in the evolution of the virus

• how the implementation of vaccination might impact outbreaks 

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