Findings from some of the UK’s top scientists have revealed some seabirds are demonstrating immunity to avian influenza.
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, bird flu viruses are prone to change and so antibody levels will likely decline over time, with next year’s offspring not guaranteed to be immune. This suggests there are no great population level benefits yet.
The research comes from the eight-strong FluMap consortium, headed by the research team at the Animal Plant Health Agency, which has developed 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, allowing experts to stay one step ahead to safeguard animal and human health.
The consortium has also identified several genetic characteristics explaining the ability of the current H5N1 viruses to spread fast and infect a greater range of species.
It has mapped the spread of infection over time and made discoveries regarding airborne transmission of the virus, including that the infectious virus can only travel short distances and is unlikely to spread between farms through the air.
“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.
An additional £3.3m from UK Research & Innovation’s (UKRI) Tackling Infections programme and Defra has been granted to continue this research, supported by a further £3.2m allocated for a sister consortium, focusing on the potential for human transmission.
“I am delighted this research project has received further funding,” said the UK’s chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss. “Bringing together all our national experts increases the speed and quality of our understanding of avian influenza and how it behaves in the UK.”