The first steps in avian flu research have been taken

26 Feb 2021 | Back to News, Publications and Annual Reports



Viruses that jump from animals to humans can cause dangerous situations. The current Covid pandemic is an extreme example of this. Another virus that is high on the risk list is the bird flu virus. To have a head start in case things ever really go wrong, research is already being done.

Among scientists, the avian flu virus is better known as H5N1. The name bird flu virus is a bit misleading because, despite being primarily a bird virus, it also infects humans. Infection is often limited to a respiratory infection, but complications sometimes arise. About three to five infections out of 100 are fatal.

The Netherlands poultry country

A bird flu outbreak is always lurking. Especially in the Netherlands with a large poultry sector. That is why we must also prepare for a possible outbreak of H5N1. An important step in this is to set up a so-called laboratory animal model. Not out of habit, but because you cannot simulate the interaction between a virus and a body in a computer model or culture cells.

Why is an animal model necessary?

In humans you cannot investigate what happens during the (asymptomatic) incubation period. But that is important to know for the development of vaccines and medicines. Nor can you investigate whether the way someone contracted the virus has consequences for the development of the disease. We cannot yet answer these kinds of questions without laboratory animals.

Disease progression less serious via aerosols

In the study we describe here, we exposed rhesus macaques to the avian flu virus in various ways. The first group received the virus through liquid droplets in the nose, throat and lung and the other group by inhaling a cloud of atomized virus droplets, so-called “aerosols”. Then we studied the disease course. Body temperature was measured 24/7 and the animals underwent regular CT scans enabling us to view the lungs. The animals that received the virus through aerosols became less ill than the animals that received the liquid droplets. The results of our study indicate that an aerosol application leads to a good model for mild disease, while the droplet application leads to disease resembling a more serious clinical picture in humans. The severity of the clinical picture may be a direct result of how deep the virus particles end up in the lungs. Exactly how this comes about is still unclear. Follow-up research must provide a definite answer.

Want to know more about this research? It can be read in the journal Viruses