Half of Britain’s free-range turkeys and geese have died before Christmas. They died of bird flu or were pre-emptively killed. Yet the major British supermarket chains say they are not worried about stocking up around the holidays; as a precaution, they ordered extra birds months ago.
Understandable as this may be from the point of view of retailers, it is also illustrative of the half-hearted approach with which Europe has allowed the avian flu epidemic to proliferate for a year now. Breeding more birds will increase rather than reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
And the damage is already great, both financially and in terms of animal suffering: in a year’s time, almost 50 million animals have already been culled from some 2,500 outbreaks on European poultry farms. 3,500 outbreaks were counted among wild birds. It makes the current situation the largest European bird flu outbreak ever.
In the Netherlands too. Infected wild birds are found all over the country. More than a hundred culls have already taken place among poultry in the past year, sometimes from several hundred animals, sometimes from hundreds of thousands of chickens per farm.
Citizens usually get little of this. Hikers sometimes find dead birds, culling operations are briefly in the news, the zoo in Berlin is closed. But in general, the subject remains in the background. The images are reminiscent of the previous epidemic in 2003, and thus get a bit jaded.
Still, experts are very concerned. They speak of “an emergency” and “a ticking time bomb.” It is high time that their call for urgency was taken seriously, all the more so because not only animal disease experts are sounding the alarm, but also virologists who specialize in humans. They warn that the virus is proliferating so wildly that there is an increased chance that it will mutate into a variant that people can transmit to each other or that mixes with the seasonal flu virus.
It takes a lot to do that, and the fact that it hasn’t happened in all the years this H5N1 virus has been circulating makes us hope it won’t come to that. But if the corona pandemic (official death toll now exceeds 6.6 million people) has made one thing clear, it is that the risks of zoonoses should no longer be underestimated. Certainly not in a country like the Netherlands, which has almost six times as many chickens as people. Here, too, mammals have already died from the avian flu virus. Contamination can also be fatal for humans, although this hardly ever occurs.
A possible solution, the vaccination of chickens, is under discussion among scientists. Is it advisable to start with the existing vaccine, which is less effective than the vaccines still under development? Vaccinated animals can then pass on the virus unnoticed, which has the disadvantage that it reduces the visibility of the spread.
Steps can already be taken on one important point, and that is working towards the acceptance of vaccinated poultry on the market. Buyers are wary of vaccinated chickens because they are more difficult to distinguish from infected animals.
Brussels is working on monitoring rules that should make the difference clearer. Rushing into this can help to smooth things over. It is an opportunity for the European Union to show that it will no longer be unnecessarily overwhelmed by viruses.
Read also: Bird flu is always around. Why are virologists holding their breath now?
A version of this article also appeared in the December 1, 2022 newspaper