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  • Dan Moskovitz

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Updated: May 20

But for Birds


It’s a pandemic’s decade, and we’re living through it. First came COVID-19—still going strong despite reduced attention. Monkeypox also had its moment in the sun a while back. Now it's bird flu’s turn.

Also called avian influenza, bird flu is the flu… but in birds. There are many variants, but H5N1 is the one currently getting attention due to its fast spread and lethality. Millions of birds have died and only Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific remain H5N1-free. 

Given how many endemic birds Aotearoa has at low population levels, the government is obviously concerned. Because of the risk H5N1 poses, Biosecurity New Zealand took the unprecedented step of allowing the Department of Conservation to trial bird flu vaccinations. Usage of bird flu vaccines is usually prohibited, as doing so complicates detection of the disease. 

Five species of bird are the guinea pigs; Takahē, Tūturatu (shore plover), red-crowned Kākāriki, Kakī (black stilt), and the Kākāpō. 

“This is an efficacy trial, rather than a real-world trial,” said DoC’s Ecology Technical Adviser Bruce McKinlay. “We chose a range of species which were in captivity or under close management so we could learn about the efficacy of this vaccine in New Zealand.” 

“The trial started at the end of January, and all of the birds have now received their second dose. There seem to be no adverse effects so far. 

“We’re now collecting blood out of the birds looking for antibodies, and once we get that data we’ll analyze it. In about three or four months we’ll be finished.” 

This isn’t a population-wide trial; just ten birds from each species are undergoing vaccinations. And realistically, even if things go swimmingly, few species can be vaccinated. It’s just logistically impossible to vaccinate a population of wild untrackable animals, especially considering the vaccine requires two shots.

Instead, as DoC’s vaccine trial fact sheet states, “vaccination might be an effective tool during outbreaks to protect a core breeding population to prevent species extinction.” 

“Internationally there's been massive amounts of bird loss, but there haven't been any actual extinctions,” says McKinlay. “What we're concerned about is where we’ve got birds in close contact with each other—like in captivity—we might have a significant amount of mortality.

“For wild bird populations, we have limited tools. We’re going to have to look out for those birds and see who survives at the end.”

Successful vaccination of a wild bird population has occurred just once before; in America with the California Condor. Bird flu wiped out 21 of the 350-strong population; a disaster in ecological terms, producing fears a subsequent outbreak would obliterate the population. Successful trials convinced the US government to vaccinate the entire population, which is still ongoing. However, testing on already vaccinated Condors has shown some have since caught bird flu and survived.

Condors are already a highly monitored species, and these vaccinations wouldn’t be possible in a species with a higher population or lower levels of management. 

The population of the Condors is similar to the species DoC is running its trials on, and McKinlay says the American results are informing DoC’s work. 

If you encounter a bird showing symptoms of avian influenza, please take a video and contact Biosecurity New Zealand on their 0800 80 99 66 hotline. Symptoms include falling over, twisting their neck to look upwards, lethargy, and drooping heads. 

Transmission of bird flu to humans is uncommon but not impossible. However its mortality rate in humans is 52%. Under no conditions touch any bird showing symptoms. 

Headline credit: Ash


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