Dutch virologists make regular checks of the wild Siberian geese population. The H5N1 virus (commonly known today as Bird Flu) was first identified in Europe in 1959. Now, some 50 years later, it has made a return. But in what form, and with what danger of transmission has the virus returned? Scientists in the Netherlands and Germany are working to identify how it spreads and understand its effects.
Among the most secure research centres in Europe is a centre at the forefront of animal research. No cattle are allowed within a 5km radius and the area is safely guarded from wild or stray animals. Researchers strive to increase their knowledge of some of the world’s most contagious animal viruses (including
bird flu). Research shows that since 1959 the H5N1 virus has further evolved; it can now kill 80-100% of the birds it infects. The virus has also somehow contaminated humans. From 200 cases worldwide, half the people have died.
The most important remaining question is: how is this bird flu dangerous for humans and how does it infect us? In its current state the virus does not transmit between humans; the reason is still unknown. The fear is that the virus could mutate into a form capable of creating a pandemic in humans.
One approach is to develop new, more powerful and more
effective vaccinations for the animals, to contain the virus before it has the chance to spread further. This option is currently being investigated by the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute in Greifswald, Germany. The first challenge lies in creating the vaccines. Researchers are attempting to develop a range of “recombinant” vaccines. These involve mixing the DNA of a non-virulent virus with the genes from proteins of a virulent virus. The second challenge is to distribute
the vaccines, no easy task with such large numbers of birds. The birds may also need multiple doses of vaccines and it would be difficult to ensure that no birds are overlooked. A possible solution is to distribute the vaccines in the form of a spray and/or to introduce the vaccines into the drinking water of the animals.
Bird Flu is without doubt a major concern for Europe. With a budget of almost €42 million over 15 years, the EU is committed to keep Bird Flu research at the centre of European efforts.