Some wild birds have developed immunity to the avian flu amid the ongoing H5N1 bird flu epidemic, according to new research.

The research was done by the FluMap consortium, under the Animal and Plant Health Association (APHA).

The researchers collected blood samples from a small sample of 30 northern gannets located on Scotland’s Bass Rock, and discovered that 30% of them had developed antibodies.

Through the research, the scientists also revealed that most of the recovered birds had black irises, as opposed to blue/grey.

A total of 77.7% of birds with black irises tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAIV) H5 antibodies, compared to 12.5% with what was described as “normal” coloured eyes.

Avian flu

While the discovery is optimistic, avian influenza viruses are prone to change and antibody levels will likely decline over time, with next year’s offspring not guaranteed to be immune.

Due to rapid mutations of the virus, the duration of immunity and the initial survival rate of birds against avian flu also remains uncertain.

The researchers aim to expand their investigations to other wild birds and to look at the effect of antibodies on infection.

An additional £3.3 million from UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Tackling Infections programme and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been granted.

A further £3.2 million has also been allocated for more research focusing on the potential for human transmission.

Interim executive chair at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and UKRI’s Tackling Infections programme lead, Prof. Guy Poppy said that the funding will further the understanding of:

  • Transmission and infection in different bird populations, including how the virus transmits from wild birds to farmed poultry;
  • Gaps in biosecurity that allow the virus to penetrate premises, and how this could be addressed;
  • The role of immunity in wild birds in the evolution of the virus;
  • How the implementation of vaccination might impact outbreaks.

“This investment is testament to the UK’s determination to stay ahead of avian influenza and underscores the importance of collaboration in the face of evolving threats,” Prof. Guy Poppy said.