A CONSORTIUM of UK scientists working to further understanding of avian influenza and develop strategies for tackling it has revealed some of its findings.

The FluMap consortium, which was announced last year, comprises eight British research institutions led by the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA).

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One of its projects found some seabird species, including Northern gannets and Shag, developed specific immunity to H5N1, showing exposure and recovery in a proportion of birds.

The team has also developed new laboratory tools that can ‘dissect’ the immune response in birds that have been exposed to avian influenza viruses in their lifetime.

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.

Genetic characteristics

The consortium has also identified several genetic characteristics that explain the ability of the current H5N1 viruses to spread fast and infect a greater range of species.

Research has found that multiple virus genes have switched and evolved to act together to enhance fitness to infect, transmit and persist in birds, but remain un-adapted to humans.

The consortium has also mapped the spread of infection over time and made important discoveries regarding the airborne transmission of the virus – determining that infectious virus can only travel short distances (less than 10 metres), making the spread between farms through the air “very unlikely”.

Funding

To continue the consortium’s work, an additional £3.3 million from UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Tackling Infections programme and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been granted.

A further £3.2 million has also been allocated for a sister consortium, focussing on the potential for human transmission.

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

The UK’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said:

“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.