November 22, 2023


Bird flu virus shifts from China to Europe and Africa, warns study


The bird flu virus is becoming more adapted to wild birds and is spreading from China to Europe and northern Africa, raising concerns of an "environmental disaster," according to a study led by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), South China Morning Post reported.


The research, involving a global team, found that the H5N1 virus has extended beyond Asia, posing a significant risk to marine and land mammals worldwide.


The study, published in the journal Nature, reported unprecedented outbreaks in diverse wild bird species across five continents since November 2021. The virus has become more persistent in wild bird populations, leading to the evolution and spread of new strains. The researchers highlighted a surge in incidental infections in wild carnivores, mink farms, and marine mammals.


Lead author Vijaykrishna Dhanasekaran from HKU urged China to maintain its vaccination programme against bird flu and guard against strains arriving from Europe. The H5N1 virus, which first emerged in China in 1996, has recently caused extensive outbreaks beyond its traditional Asian poultry networks.


The study warned of the environmental impact, with the virus spreading to new regions via migratory flyways. Concerns were raised as H5N1 was detected in marine mammals on the US West Coast for the first time, affecting harbour seals in Puget Sound. The virus was also reported in penguins in the Antarctic region, likely carried by migratory birds.


Meanwhile, in Britain, scientists proposed gene editing as a potential method to breed chickens partially resistant to bird flu. Altering a small section of their DNA could restrict the virus's ability to infect chickens, offering a new way to make permanent changes in disease resistance.


The global community is urged to enhance surveillance and implement multifaceted mitigation strategies to prevent and respond to outbreaks, as the scale of H5 outbreaks in wild birds has been escalating beyond Asia since 2014, according to the researchers.


-      South China Morning Post