The government should start trials for vaccination of poultry to limit the spread of bird flu in the UK, its own scientific advisers have said.
A major report by the Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) urges Defra to “develop specifications for trials, identification of potential field trial sites, and commission modelling studies (including assessment of required trial size and duration)” to support vaccination which should begin “as soon as possible”.
The report contains several recommendations to tackle avian influenza as the world continues to grapple with the biggest-ever outbreak of the virus, fuelled by the highly infectious H5N1 strain.
The European Union has already given the green light to member states to begin vaccinating chickens and other poultry flocks.
Vaccinating poultry is currently not permitted in the UK, but i revealed in March that the government is actively considering the move to curb the virus.
The SAC report weighs up the benefits and costs of vaccination and warns that “vaccine formulations should allow differentiation between the infected and the vaccinated birds” which would allow flocks which had received the jab to be monitored for evolution of new virus strains which could “evade vaccine protection or pose a greater risk to human health”.
The risk to humans from bird flu is currently classed as low, but scientists are concerned that the virus is spreading to mammals and could evolve to become more transmissible between people.
Defra declined to say last night whether the recommendation for vaccine trials would be taken up.
Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Christine Middlemiss said: “We are in the midst of the largest outbreak ever seen in this country and it is vital to have the very best science informing our approach.
“With the unusual scale of the avian influenza outbreak and concern about the range of wild species being impacted by the virus, a report like this helps build our understanding and makes useful recommendations, which we will consider further.”
Defra chief scientific adviser Gideon Henderson, who commissioned the report, said: “We are committed to tackling this outbreak using the very latest scientific evidence and international best practice.
“This report supports our ongoing scientific work on avian influenza, which includes a £1.5million in research project to understand how this disease is behaving in wild and kept birds that is due to report in the autumn.
“I would like to thank all those who provided their time and expertise on producing this helpful report to augment Defra’s work on HPAI [Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza].”
Read More: Bird flu: UK should start vaccine trials for chickens, government’s own scientific advisers say