NEW RESEARCH has highlighted how avian influenza viruses can exchange genetic material with other influenza viruses and develop into strains that have a high risk to poultry.

The work, undertaken by a consortium that included the Roslin Institute, analysed samples of avian influenza taken during the 2016/2017 bird flu outbreak, which was the most significant known outbreak in Europe.

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Between October 2016 and August 2017 1,207 individual highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks were reported across 24 European countries.

Researchers analysed samples of avian influenza from that outbreak in birds throughout the flu season.

They then used a computational technique, known as phylogenetic inference, to estimate when and where the virus exchanged genetic material with other viruses in wild or domestic birds.

Migratory cycles

The virus could easily exchange genetic material with other, less harmful viruses, at times and locations corresponding to birds’ migratory cycles, results showed.

These included viruses carried by wild birds on intersecting migratory routes, and by farmed ducks in China and central Europe.

Migrating birds harbouring weaker viruses are more likely to survive their journey and potentially pass disease to domestic birds.


Sam Lycett, of the Roslin Institute, said: “Bird flu viruses can readily exchange genetic material with other influenza viruses and this, in combination with repeated transmission of viruses between domestic and wild birds, means that a viral strain can emerge and persist in wild bird populations, which carries a high risk of disease for poultry.

“This aids our understanding of how a pathogenic avian flu virus could become established in wild bird populations.”

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was carried out in collaboration with the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, Germany, the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Netherlands, and the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute and Roslin Institute.