DEFRA has convened its first meeting of cross-government and poultry sector representatives looking at the potential for avian influenza vaccination as a control measure against the virus.
It comes as the European Commission changes rules surrounding the use of AI vaccination, despite none being authorised for general use on the continent at present.
See also: Europe changes rules to allow avian influenza vaccination
A spokesperson at Defra said the group, which met for the first time this week, would explore the potential for inoculation as a preventative measure, but it was unlikely vaccines would be authorised in time for the 2023/2024 winter.
Speaking at the NFU’s conference this week, the UK’s chief vet Christine Middlemiss said a vaccine task force had been set up and pressed the importance of the poultry sector working with the government.
“It’s really important we do this together,” said Ms Middlemiss. “We have colleagues who can tell us what a good vaccine looks like,” she told delegates.
There are challenges in finding a suitable vaccine and selecting which birds should be inoculated, she added.
The vaccines authorised for use in the UK at present don’t meet the criteria for suitability – they do not suppress infection sufficiently and may allow the virus to spread without clinical symptoms, said Ms Middlemiss.
They are currently available only in limited circumstances for high-value birds kept in licenced zoos.
There is a risk-reward calculation to be made when it comes to vaccination. High-value free-range turkeys, parent and grandparent stock and even free-range layers could benefit from vaccination.
Even then, it remains to be seen what cost is put on the surveillance of flocks to detect whether they are positive for a wild strain of AI or testing positive for a vaccine-derived strain of the virus. While there are moves to trial vaccination internationally, it remains a trade barrier.
Ms Middlemiss added: “It’s not going to be a silver bullet that means no biosecurity, and it’s not going to happen for this autumn.”