Poultry markets in Shanghai and other affected areas have been closed, reducing the mixing of birds and human-bird contact. Once infected flocks are identified the OIE (Word Organisation for Animal Health) recommends culling as the first action to prevent further transmission. However, whilst the virus is present in free-flying domesticated and wild birds this may not be fully effective and vaccination may need to be considered.
Vaccination against influenza is widely practised in people, in the form of the seasonal 'flu jab', and had been used by China and other countries to control influenza in poultry. A significant difficulty with this approach is that conventional vaccines take several months to produce in usable quantity and are highly tailored to the virus they are used to control. Mutational changes in the virus may enable it to continue to replicate and spread.
Work is underway at The Pirbright Institute to produce vaccines that can be grown more quickly and provide a much broader range, and more long lasting, protection than presently achievable. Collaborations with Oxford University and Imperial College London aim to demonstrate efficacy in other species, including humans. One vaccine recently developed at the Institute is presently being tested for its ability to protect against H7N9.
In other work at the Institute we are identifying genetic lines of chicken that are naturally resistant to influenza infection and are also developing tests that can give a rapid read-out of an animal's infection status without having to take samples back to the laboratory. Rapid diagnosis in the field is particularly important as H7N9, unlike H5N1, is clinically silent: infected birds appear normal and well. Taken in combination these projects will provide a significant advance in the ability to control influenza in all species.
Work on these projects is funded by the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the EU. UK collaborations continue with The National Institute for Medical Research, The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Imperial College. International collaborations include those with several influenza laboratories in China, the US and EU.