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RDAR talks Avian Flu with Researchers from the University of Calgary and University of Alberta

Lately avian influenza (AI) has been in the media on a more regular basis. AI is a highly contagious viral disease that affects both wild and domestic birds, and less commonly other mammals, caused by a Type A influenza virus. The poultry industry in Alberta is currently challenged by a avian influenza (AI) outbreak affecting wild birds, commercial poultry operations, and small flocks.

RDAR had the opportunity to talk to researchers Dr. Sylvia Checkley, Associate Professor from the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Jie Chen, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta and their teams of project investigators to learn more about AI and their RDAR-funded research projects that are geared to help support the poultry industry. Research led by Dr Checkley and Dr. Chen will provide relevant information to be used by the poultry industry to improve biosecurity and risk mitigation strategies moving forward.

Excerpts from Original Interviews

Tell us about your research?

Checkley: We will work directly with the poultry industry and other stakeholders in Alberta and Canada to help answer questions of interest and importance to them, related to the current Avian Influenza (AI) outbreak. We will map the affected poultry barns in relation to wild birds identified as infected with avian influenza (AI) or probable AI infected. We will also look at the associations between farm environmental and management characteristics that may be associated with AI exposure and disease transmission on AIV positive poultry operations by comparing affected operations with non-affected operations

Chen: Our research is focused on improving existing serological detection methods which are used to detect exposure to AI for surveillance. These currently used tests require a centralized laboratory to perform the testing requiring samples to be collected and shipped to the central laboratory. Our aim is to develop the currently used serological test into a user friendly rapid point of care diagnostic which can be used on farms to demonstrate freedom of AI in the flock.

AIV has been in the media more recently. Why is your research important?

Checkley: Avian influenza (AI) is a highly contagious viral disease caused by AIV.  This virus can survive in the environment and affects both wild and domestic birds, and less commonly other mammals. One of the globally circulating strains of AIV (H5N1 subtype), has been causing outbreak in wild birds and poultry across the world since 1995 and in Europe for over five years. This strain was first detected in North America in December 2021. This strain subsequently has caused outbreaks in North American poultry and other birds.

The poultry industry in Alberta is currently challenged by a AI outbreak affecting wild birds, commercial poultry operations, and small flocks. Many waterfowl are affected with HPAI as well as birds of prey and scavenging mammals. Questions are being asked across the poultry industry concerning how AI virus from the environment has entered poultry barn. Our research deals with these important questions. It is critical to understand risk factors and routes for AI spread into barns in our local situation in 2022, to directly support the poultry industry so appropriate risk mitigation and other disease prevention and control decisions are based on current evidence.

Chen: AI is an important disease which causes significant losses to both individual producers as well as the poultry industry. Control of the disease is essential for the international trade of poultry and their products. The research from this project when implemented can improve the speed of diagnosis and surveillance.

How will your research benefit or help the poultry industry and poultry producers?

Checkley: This research is important in order to develop and deliver evidence-based practical advice to small flock and commercial poultry producers. The research analyses will help guide barn improvements, and inform decisions and recommendations related to AI transmission mitigation and forward planning. Outcomes from this research will be used to help keep our poultry flocks healthy and ensure sustainability of the Canadian poultry industry.

Chen: Having point of care diagnostics readily available will allow for improved AI surveillance allowing for faster control measures to be implemented for AI, which can reduce losses for the poultry industry.

Dr Chen, how will your research benefit Canadian consumers?

Chen: This research will improve the speed of AI surveillance, allow producers to test for exposure to AI in their flocks leading to improved biosecurity and improved production which will benefit consumers.

Looking to the future, what other AIV research will your team of investigators be involved in?

Checkley: Our group has planned another project, led by Dr. Faizal Careem, that will investigate the viral load of AI in wild birds (mainly nonmigratory birds), water and air and around affected barns. In this study, we are going to identify the AIV strains as well.

Chen: The technology developed is a platform technology which can be implemented for other serological diagnostics used for other diseases impacting animal health. Further development of this technology can be applied to detect the presence of AIV which is planned for the future research.

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