November 9, 2023


Roslin: US$4.1 million award supports research into tackling bird flu




A team of scientists studying bird flu has been awarded £3.3 million (US$4.1 million) to further investigate the disease, including understanding immunity in wild birds, the Roslin Institute announced last month.


The award to the FluMap consortium, led by the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) and involving the Roslin Institute, will support the team's ongoing investigations into the evolution and transmission of the disease.


Their investigations take place amid an ongoing, severe outbreak of avian flu, which has caused extensive sickness and death in wild and domestic birds around the world.


The new tranche of funding will allow the team to develop their understanding of bird flu, building on their recent discoveries, including that some seabirds are demonstrating immunity to the disease.


Preliminary investigations in a small sample of some seabird species, including northern gannets and shags from the Bass Rock near Edinburgh, Scotland, the United Kingdom, revealed specific immunity to H5N1, showing exposure and recovery in a proportion of birds. 


Scientists welcomed the finding, which confirms for the first time that infected birds may potentially survive the disease. 


The team has developed lab tools that can dissect the immune response in birds that have been exposed to bird flu viruses.


The consortium has also identified several genetic characteristics that explain the ability of the current H5N1 viruses to spread quickly and infect a greater range of species. 


Research has found that multiple virus genes have switched and evolved to act together to enhance fitness to infect, transmit and persist in birds, but remain unadapted to humans. 


The team has mapped the spread of infection over time and found that infectious virus can travel distances of less than 10 metres, and is very unlikely to spread between farms through the air. 


The additional £3.3 million, allocated over 17 months, is being granted to the consortium from UK Research and Innovation's (UKRI) Tackling Infections programme and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). 


New research will explore the evolution of the virus and the ability to predict new strains, protecting both animal and human health.   


The consortium also includes the Pirbright Institute, the Royal Veterinary College, the Universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Nottingham, and Imperial College London. 


A further £3.2 million (US$3.9 million) is expected to be awarded for a sister consortium, focusing on the potential for human transmission. 


Both teams would work together in a One Health approach encompassing the health of people, animals and the environment, recognising that these are interdependent.   


"I am delighted this research project has received further funding. Bringing together all our national experts increases the speed and quality of our understanding of avian influenza and how it behaves in the UK," said  Christine Middlemiss, the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer. "This critical research will aid our development of further strategies to protect our birds and minimise the impact of this dreadful disease."


"Flu is constantly evolving, and it is clear that a couple of years ago, the current strain of bird flu changed to become supercharged," said Professor Paul Digard of the Roslin Institute. "The long-term goal of our work is to improve our understanding and ability to predict bird flu's behaviour and impact, so that we may be better placed to manage the risks."


- The Roslin Institue

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