Battling the avian flu epidemic | FT Food Revolution
The FT's Anjana Ahuja reports on how virologists are unlocking the secrets of the latest H5N1 avian flu strain, in an attempt to tackle the most serious and sustained disease threatening farmed poultry and wild birds across the US and Europe
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
The worst recorded avian flu outbreak in Europe and the US is devastating poultry farms. In 2022 around 100mn farmed birds died from infection or were culled to stop the virus spreading in those regions. Even producers in remote areas like rural Scotland have not been spared, as wild birds carry the pathogen across borders.
This disease knows no boundaries, and it will find the weakest link, and it will get in. One farmer, I did speak to on the phone - he was actually in tears - just horrendous, he said, to deal with. It moves through the flocks exceedingly quickly, and it's very infectious.
This microscopic image shows the virus in green, hijacking a host cell in blue. First detected in domestic geese in southern China in 1996, H5N1 has mutated, changing slightly as it spreads and causing repeated seasonal outbreaks.
But nothing as severe and sustained as the current epidemic. It's a double whammy for producers already burdened with soaring costs of fuel, feed, and other expenses the Union says aren't covered when flocks are lost.
It compensates for the number of birds that are culled, but it doesn't actually cover the cost of the secondary cleaning and disinfection. Could be in excess of a quarter of a million pounds, and it doesn't cover things like running costs and repayments to the bank for the buildings, the restocking costs and the well-being of the farm.
Is this forcing producers out of business?
Certainly farmers will think twice now about restocking. I certainly think it would make some people who are considering entering the poultry industry to think twice.
The loss in supply to butchers and supermarkets in the UK over 2022 included half of all free-range turkeys bred for Christmas - some 600,000 birds. What hasn't been as widely highlighted is the devastating effect on wild bird populations.
The more the virus circulates in wild birds, the more likely they'll infect farmed poultry. Scottish coasts are home to some of the most important seabird colonies in the world, like Bass Rock off North Berwick, east of Edinburgh. It's the largest known population of northern gannets: tough territorial seabirds that seemed largely unaffected by avian flu. Then the latest strain hit in July 2022. This image, taken soon after, recorded the shocking toll.
This virus is one of the cruellest viruses that we've seen. It was the speed it spread through the colony. Birds were just dying around us. Every visit we made, the rock was emptier. It became more silent.
The same outbreak has devastated other significant colonies across a variety of species, increasing the potential for surviving birds to spread the virus to poultry. At the University of Edinburgh collaborative studies are under way into the virus itself.
Professor Paul Digard and his team are part of a British consortium of government and academic experts. They're working to better understand, control and predict the behaviour of this unusually persistent H5N1 strain.
Normally, it's a winter thing, but this last year, it's actually stayed in the UK over the summer for the first time we've ever seen, which means we get more biosecurity breakdowns that get it into commercial poultry or domestic poultry.
So what's changed? Is it the virus?
That is a big question and one that we're working to try and answer.
Here at the Roslin Institute the virus has been split into pieces of genetic material that are safe to work with. The segments are left to develop to see how this strain behaves outside a host, and crucially, how long it can remain active.
If it genuinely is more persistent in the environment then that's important knowledge because we can adapt the biosecurity measures to take that into account. We can adapt the clean-up measures after an outbreak to take that into account. And if we can work out what the genetic features of the virus are that control that behaviour, then we can use that for forecasting risk of future variants of flu.
Answers can't come soon enough for a struggling poultry industry that, in the UK at least, for a variety of reasons, has no routine vaccination programme.
The reason vaccination is controversial is because it's not always that effective, and you can end up with silent infections in the poultry that you don't realise are there. And then that means you can't certify your animals as virus-free, and you can't export them.
Obviously, at some point, there's going to be some form of vaccination programme. But it's a long way off because if we vaccinate in the UK it means that our export status is zero. If there is a case of vaccine, it's going to have to be EU-wide or possibly further.
Clearly, vaccination isn't practical for wild birds. But at breeding sites like Bass Rock at least there is some optimism that colonies can recover.
Gannets were doing well. They're a strong species. We think they will survive. But nobody ever thought a virus could take them out in the manner that we've seen.
Unlike previous outbreaks that came and went experts are concerned that avian flu now appears endemic or ever-present in wild birds. If so, it represents a constant threat to the production of poultry meat and eggs - among the most important and widely consumed animal source foods in the world.