Published: 20 Jun 2022 | Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022 09:00:13

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has announced its involvement in a new major UK research consortium, convened to battle bird flu following unprecedented outbreaks, which have led to more than 100 cases in the UK this year alone.

The group is comprised of eight of the UK’s top scientific organisations, including the RVC; Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA); The Pirbright Institute; Roslin Institute; University of Cambridge; Imperial College London; University of Leeds; and University of Nottingham. The consortium has been awarded £1.5 million of government funding to bolster research projects and develop new strategies to effectively tackle bird flu outbreaks. The findings from this research will also be shared with international partners to enhance global risk mitigation and better inform current efforts to tackle the disease.

Advancing the UK’s world-leading research reputation in studying bird flu, this project brings together expertise from microbiologists, epidemiologists, virologists, genomics specialists and mathematical modelers to focus on several key areas aimed at containing future outbreaks and supporting the UK’s poultry sector and rural economy. These research areas include understanding why some strains form larger and longer outbreaks, the difference in transmission and infection in different bird populations, the spread of infection over time and across species, resistance in some species, predicting how the virus will evolve and spread in the future and protecting against zoonotic transmission occurring from animals to humans.

The RVC’s involvement will include establishing a robust, UK-focused dataset of wild bird distribution and movements and combining it with available genome sequence data to reconstruct viral diffusion patterns. Additionally, the RVC’s work will include an investigation of farmers’ perceptions of biosecurity measures. This work will be led by Dr Guillaume Fournié, Senior Research Fellow; Dr Sarah Hill, Research Fellow in Genomic Epidemiology (Infectious Diseases); Professor Nicola Lewis, Professor in One Health Evolutionary Biology; Dr Eve Houghton, and Dr Ivo Syndicus, both Postdoctoral Research Fellows in Social Sciences. The team will also be joined by Dr Jayna Raghwani, who will be joining the RVC in September as Senior Postdoctoral Researcher.

Dr Guillaume Fournié, Senior Research Fellow at the RVC and member of the Consortium, said:

“The scale of the incursion of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in the UK and Europe over the winters 2020-21 and 2021-22 makes it necessary to review gaps in our understanding of the dynamics of these viruses, and especially the role of wild birds in spreading, and potentially maintaining, their circulation.

“As part of this project, the RVC will contribute to improve our understanding of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus dynamics in wild bird populations, at the interface between wild birds and domestic poultry, and its potential to cause large outbreaks among farms. This information will allow us to inform the design of more targeted surveillance activities and risk mitigation interventions better tailored to the UK poultry sector.”

The RVC has a strong track record of cross-agency research, largely through the RVC’s Veterinary Epidemiology Economics and Public Health (VEEPH) group, and its work on ‘One Health’, such as through the UKRI GCRF One Health Poultry Hub, which creates new ways of sourcing improved intelligence in the emergence and spread of new diseases. This is vital for monitoring other diseases with socio-economic impact, such as bird flu.

This research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

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About the RVC

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a Member Institution of the University of London.
  • It is one of the few veterinary schools in the world that hold accreditations from the RCVS in the UK (with reciprocal recognition from the AVBC for Australasia, the VCI for Ireland and the SAVC for South Africa), the EAEVE in the EU, and the AVMA in the USA and Canada.
  • The RVC is ranked as the top veterinary school in the world in line QS World University Rankings by subject, 2022.
  • The RVC offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences.  
  • A research led institution with 88% of its research rated as internationally excellent or world class in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.
  • The RVC provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals and first opinion practices in London and Hertfordshire.

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