Scientists help to battle bird flu outbreaks in UK

Experts from the University of Nottingham are some of the UK’s top scientists who are part of a major new consortium to help in the battle against bird flu.

The eight-member strong consortium, headed by the world-leading research team at the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA), has received £1.5 million from the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and has been tasked with developing new strategies to tackle future bird flu outbreaks.

Last year’s bird flu outbreak has been the largest and longest ever experienced in the UK and in many parts of Europe. New cases continue to be reported to date (June 2022). Its costs to animals and the entire UK poultry industry are truly enormous and far-reaching. The consortium aims to find new and better ways to contain future outbreaks which would be a significant boost to the industry and to food security.

Professor Kin-Chow Chang, and Dr Leah Goulding from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham will help to develop novel tools and generate new data relevant to mitigating the impact of high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) virus infection. The University will lead to develop and implement a cell-based workflow to rapidly screen avian influenza viruses for replication fitness and pathogenic potential.

The UK poultry industry is experiencing severe socio-economic damage and threats from high pathogenicity HPAI viruses. To determine potential risks and improve controls against these emerging viruses require acquisition of comprehensive knowledge, based on an integrated cross-disciplinary approach to understanding virus/host interactions, and the genetic determinants of virulence, transmissibility and antigenicity in poultry and wild birds. I am excited and honoured to be part of a national effort to make a positive contribution to the control and management of severe avian flu outbreaks in the UK and beyond.”

UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said:”The recent outbreak of bird flu has significantly affected our poultry industry and – thanks to our hard-working scientists, vets and farmers – we have been able to stamp out disease. This new consortium will allow us to combine our expertise at a national level to increase the speed and quality of our research, ensuring we can develop new strategies to aid our efforts against this insidious disease.”

Professor Ian Brown, APHA’s Head of Virology and project manager, said: “The Animal and Plant Health Agency provides first-class scientific expertise when it comes to protecting the UK from avian influenza.

“Today’s investment in a new research consortium will help bring together the greatest minds from eight world-leading British institutions to address gaps in our understanding of bird flu. This will ensure we can continue our crucial role in furthering animal health science and curb harmful diseases that have greatly impacted poultry keepers over the last year.”

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC, said: “One of the real strengths of the UK’s scientific response to disease outbreaks is the way that we can draw on leading researchers from all over the country, who can pool their expertise to deliver results, fast. This new national consortium will study the unprecedented avian influenza outbreak to better understand this latest strain and how to tackle it. This will feed rapidly into government decision-making and new strategies to protect the poultry industry and reduce the risk of future transmission to humans.”

UK researchers are already world-leaders in studying bird flu, with the APHA hosting an International Reference Laboratory, which conducts testing on global samples and rapidly shares the latest information internationally on outbreaks. The knowledge gathered will also be shared with international partners to aid their efforts to tackle the disease with benefits for global risk mitigation.

Members of the consortium will also attend a global session this month, hosted by the US Department of Agriculture, where they will influence and coordinate future investment into animal influenzas on an international basis.

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