The highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI) has been causing outbreaks in wild birds and farmed poultry for decades. In Central Europe, HPAI was usually only detected during the winter months. In 2022, this has changed, and the bird flu also caused infections during summer, leading to the largest epidemic in Europe so far that is ongoing and is affecting animals in 37 countries. Thousands of farmed and wild birds were infected. Seabird colonies in particular have been hit and massively decimated. In poultry farms 50 million birds died or had to be culled.
Even though HPAI is highly specific to birds, several spill-over events were documented in mammals. In rare cases the virus was also transmitted to humans, highlighting the zoonotic potential of the disease.
In October 2022, an HPAI-outbreak at a mink farm in the Galicia region in northwest Spain received major public interest because within a few weeks, the virus spread over the whole premises. The finding indicates a transmission of the virus from mink to mink would be the first observed transmission between mammals.
Bringing together three experts on HPAI from Spain, the UK and Germany, we were able to discuss the current HPAI pandemic and answer questions such as; why has it become a pandemic? How detrimental is the impact on wild bird populations? Are there any measurements available to curb further spread? What is the potential of vaccination and where should it be applied? How big is the risk that HPAI could spill over to humans and become the next pandemic?
Ursula Höfle PhD, Contract professor at the SaBio (Health and Biotechnology) Research Group, National Game and Wildlife Research Institute (CSIC-UCLM-JCCM), University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
Prof Ian H. Brown, Head of Virology at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Weybridge, Surrey, UK
Prof Martin Beer, Head of the Institute for Diagnostic Virology (IVD), Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, Bundesforschungsinstitut für Tiergesundheit, Greifswald-Insel Riems, Germany