Leeds expert joins Government bird flu task force

A Government task force set up to find new ways to contain outbreaks of bird flu will feature expertise from the University.

Dr Alastair Ward, Associate Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management in the School of Biology, joins academics from across the UK in an eight organisation-strong consortium headed by the research team at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). 

The group has received £1.5 million from the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to develop new strategies to tackle future bird flu outbreaks. 

The announcement was made by APHA, DEFRA and BBSRC today. 

Reliable detection of avian influenza in wild birds before outbreaks on poultry farms could offer opportunities to alert farmers to the need to enhance biosecurity practices.

Dr Alastair Ward, School of Biology

Dr Ward will investigate the role of wild birds in perpetuating the disease amongst poultry. He will examine whether the virus can be consistently detected in birds routinely shot by hunters at key locations throughout England, before outbreaks start on poultry farms. If successful, this will mean that early detection of seasonal re-emergence of the disease in wild birds can be used to trigger advice to poultry farmers to enhance biosecurity practices so that they reduce the risk of an outbreak.  

He said: “Reliable detection of avian influenza in wild birds before outbreaks on poultry farms could offer opportunities to alert farmers to the need to enhance biosecurity practices, such as temporary housing of free-range birds, in order to reduce their chances of suffering an outbreak.  

“With the cost to the industry likely exceeding £100 million last season, such advice could result in massive financial savings for the industry and national economy and substantial reduction in the numbers of domestic birds slaughtered to waste in order to control the disease.  

“Since hunters lawfully shoot several thousand ducks and geese in the UK each year, these could offer an excellent resource for testing for the disease. This is what we are seeking to evaluate during our study.” 

Largest UK outbreak

This year’s bird flu outbreak has been the largest and longest ever experienced in the UK and in many parts of Europe. The outbreak started earlier than previous years after the virus continued to circulate in Europe over summer 2021 and led to more than 100 cases in the UK. 

It is hoped the consortium will be able to find new ways to contain future outbreaks. The news will be a significant boost to the UK’s poultry sector and rural economy, which has experienced significant disruption from this year’s outbreak with compulsory indoor housing measures put in place to protect poultry from the disease.  

The consortium will focus on building our understanding in a number of key areas, including:  

  • what it is about the current virus strains that helps them to form larger and longer outbreaks; 
  • understanding 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;
  • mapping and modelling the spread of infection over time and across species;
  • why some birds, such as ducks, are more resistant to bird flu strains;
  • developing models to predict how the viruses will evolve and spread in the future; 
  • inform risk mitigation measures in birds to reduce disease burden thereby protecting against zoonotic transmission occurring from animals to humans, to prevent future spillovers of influenza with pandemic potential into humans. 

UK Chief Veterinary Officer Christine Middlemiss said: “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 and hopefully in time reduce the impact on the poultry sector.” 

Professor Ian Brown, APHA’s Head of Virology and project manager, said: “This investment in a new research consortium will bring together the greatest minds from eight world-leading British institutions to address gaps in our understanding of bird flu, helping us to control the spread of the disease, while furthering UK animal health science and ensuring we maintain our world-leading reputation in the field.” 

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.” 

International collaboration

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. 

Members include APHA, The Pirbright Institute, Royal Veterinary College, Roslin Institute, University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and University of Nottingham. Their researchers bring together expertise across many areas including microbiologists, epidemiologists, virologists, genomics specialists, mathematical modelers and those translating science evidence into formats that can be used by policymakers. 

Further information 

Picture: Adobe Stock

For media inquiries, contact University of Leeds press officer Lauren Ballinger via email: l.ballinger@leeds.ac.uk