There are several issues that need to be better understood before widespread vaccination can be used against avian influenza, the UK’s chief vet has warned.

Speaking in Westminster, Christine Middlemiss said two bird flu vaccines are available in England at present, although neither are designed for the current strain of the virus.

“We could use them, they might dampen down disease, but we would likely still have infection there,” she told a committee of MPs on Tuesday.


Middlemiss said vaccinating for bird flu could also have implications for international trade as it was unclear how it would affect the UK’s official avian influenza disease status.

“It becomes difficult to distinguish between birds that have been infected with the virus and birds that are vaccinated,” she explained.

“If most of the western world moves together on vaccination then that will be really powerful and will help minimise a lot of the trade arguments,” she added.

Wild birds

Another issue with vaccinating poultry surrounds how new strains of avian influenza will develop in wild birds.

“This is a very strong virus and to vaccinate against it would be great, but we don’t want to do that if it encourages a different strain to become stronger,” Middlemiss said.

However, MPs were told that “a global conversation has started” about vaccines, as well as tests that can distinguish between infected and vaccinated birds.

“Last year … industry colleagues and people globally were not interested in vaccinating.

“We hoped it was going to be a one winter event, but it hasn’t been,” she said.


When asked if the current level of disease will persist indefinitely in wild birds, the chief vet did not rule out immunity building up over time.

Early indications suggest younger wild birds are mainly being infected, which could indicate older birds have built up some resistance to the virus.

“Our surveillance is not based on the ages or demographics of wild birds, so it is very tentative to say that at the moment,” she added.

Half of free-range turkeys wiped out

Almost half the free-range turkeys in the UK have been culled due to avian influenza, British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said.

“The usual number of free-range birds grown for Christmas is 1.2m or 1.3m. We have seen around 600,000 of those free-range birds directly affected,” he told MPs on Tuesday.

Across housed and free-range turkeys, Griffiths said around 9m birds are typically grown for Christmas and “just over 1m” have been culled, or died with avian flu this year.

“I don’t think UK turkey prices will go up. There will be a big, big shortage of free-range turkeys this year,” added poultry producer Paul Kelly.

He said the current outbreak of avian influenza has been “devastating” for the effected farmers. “To give an example, we had one farm with 9,500 birds. The first infection was seen on Thursday evening with 20 mortalities. By Monday lunchtime, they were all dead.”

Compulsory housing order extended to NI

A compulsory housing order for all poultry and kept birds came into effect in NI at midday on Monday (28 November). NI chief vet Robert Huey has urged poultry farmers to maintain stringent biosecurity measures as the virus continues to circulate in wild birds.“We must try to avoid a repeat of last year, which was NI’s worst ever outbreak of avian flu and resulted in the cull of approximately 80,000 birds,” he said. There have been no cases of bird flu in commercial poultry this year to date, although two outbreaks have been confirmed in Co Monaghan.

Poultry conference to move online

A poultry conference which was to be held at Greenmount Campus on 5 December will now be held online to minimise the risk of bird flu spreading. The webinar is being organised by the UFU and CAFRE and will take place at 7pm. Speakers include John Kirkpatrick from Tesco, NI chief vet Robert Huey and Solmatix Renewables founder Richard Bell. Anyone who has registered does not need to book again. Registration is open at