Health chiefs ‘running emergency drills’ in case bird flu spreads among humans

Emergency drills are being practiced in case the bird flu virus, causing mayhem in poultry farming, crosses over to humans, reportedly said Whitehall officials.

From Monday, birdkeepers in England will be legally required to house their poultry indoors in a bid to tackle the spread of avian influenza.

And farmers have warned about the potential impact on the supply of turkeys this Christmas due to the UK’s largest outbreak of bird flu.

Chief veterinary officer Dr Christine Middlemiss has said that with it possible for the virus to be transmitted to humans, all is also being done to protect people as well as animals.

She reportedly said that the virus is being tested at each infected farm for mutations while workers are also being offered antivirals as a precaution.

“Because this is a zoonotic disease, it has the potential to infect people” Dr Middlemiss told the Telegraph. “We exercise frequently with the UK Health Security Agency and others for those scenarios happening.”

It is a fast moving virus with the national risk of bird flu in wild birds having increased and it is now considered to be very high – there have been more than 200 confirmed cases since late October 2021.

In tightly packed populations of birds the ‘R’ rate can be as high as 100 meaning that an individual bird with the virus could infect 100 others, it is reported.

More than 3.8 million birds are believed to have now been culled this year in the UK following the Avian H5N1 outbreak.

So far the virus has not mutated enough to spread between humans but people have caught the virus, with the World Health Organisation stating that 868 people have had it since 2003 with 456 deaths from 21 countries.

Dr Middlemiss said that the risk to the general public is “low” but she said that health authorities are not being “complacent”.

“In every infected premise we … look at the genomics of individual isolates. Is the virus changing? Has it become more humanised? … We’re confident at the moment that that is not happening, but we keep looking just in case,” she reportedly said.

Mark Gorton, managing director of Traditional Norfolk Poultry, said if the situation continues there could be “severe shortages” this festive season.

The UK produces nearly a billion birds a year for eating as meat and, for Christmas, produces between nine and 10 million turkeys.

Mr Gorton told The Independent : “It’s been unbelievably bad. It’s off the scale – worse than anything we’ve seen before.

“There will be a big impact on the Christmas market. It’s going to be quite bad. If it carries on the way it is, we’re going to be seeing severe shortages.”

Berkshire farmer Tom Copas told BBC News: “It’s terrifying right now. Our entire business depends on the Christmas market. If we were to get bird flu we would lose everything.”