Professor Thijs Kuiken gave a thorough overview of how HPAI develops and how quickly it spreads between animals but also to humans. The Intergroup was shown studies that demonstrated the correlation between an increase in poultry production and an increase in HPAI outbreaks. The HPAI virus is mostly common in intensive farming systems and in Europe, Professor Kuiken explained. The virus has also adapted to circulation in wild birds which is a serious problem, making it much more difficult to control.
Avian influenza is a dangerous threat to public health with increasing transmission recorded in Europe, as well as the UK and Russia. There has been detection of multiple avian influenza viruses on farms and at live animal markets resulting in more transmissions to humans. With the virus's recorded ability to mutate, there is concern that the bird flu virus will continue to evolve becoming efficiently transmissible between humans, resulting in a new flu pandemic. The current methods of surveillance, biosecurity and culling are not sufficient, according to Professor Kuiken, to stop HPAI outbreaks.
The Animal Health Law (AHL) is the main legal framework for the EU’s harmonised control measures for HPAI. Dr Iulia Delia Cohen, DG SANTE, European Commission went into depth concerning the possibilities the AHL provides in terms of minimising the risks of avian influenza. Dr Cohen stressed that the AHL concerns transmissible animal diseases and animal health, and not animal welfare.
One of the main preventive measures to avoid introduction and spread of the HPAI virus is surveillance. The European Union has a strong surveillance system in place in order to identify and detect early cases of HPAI.
Once cases are detected the measures taken include killing and disposal of all susceptible animals, biosecurity measures, disposal of potentially contaminated products, competent authority supervised transport in and out, and competent authority sampling for lab testing for the purpose of epidemiological enquiry. A restricted zone is established immediately involving a protection zone of at least three kilometres around the outbreak and a surveillance zone of around ten kilometres around the outbreak.
Dr Cohen touched upon the possibility of vaccines under the AHL and said the Commission is working on a delegated act that would allow Member States to make use of such a possibility. This delegated act, according to Barbara Logar, DG SANTE, European Commission, is expected to be adopted by the Commission by spring this year.
Following both presentations, MEPs had a variety of questions and concerns. It was clear to most that the legal framework working to protect animals and humans is not doing enough given the rapid rate at which this virus is spreading throughout Europe.
MEP Francisco Guerreiro (Greens/EFA, PT) noted that following the war in Ukraine, the agriculture sector has warned that it is necessary to further intensify food production to ensure food security. He questioned what effect this would have on the development of HPAI, given Professor Kuiken’s warning that this disease spreads primarily in intensive farming situations. Indeed, in order to deal with the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and HPAI outbreaks, we should not be increasing the number of animals we are producing.
Gene editing tools combined with vaccinations was suggested by an MEP as an option, however Professor Kuiken warned against a purely technological solution to this problem. Reducing the number of farms in dense areas reduces the risk of spread of the HPAI virus and also the risk of other health problems. The take-home message was clear: by reducing animal farming, we increase our possibilities to live in a healthier and safer environment.
Before closing the meeting, MEP Tilly Metz (Greens/EFA, LU) reminded all present that we must keep in mind the one health concept as the road to a solution to this problem.
The next Intergroup session will take place on the 7th of April and will concern the Common Agricultural Policy National Strategic Plans and its relation to animal welfare.