How Michigan scientists are working to stop the spread of bird flu in the state

Posted at 8:34 AM, Jun 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-02 08:34:25-04

(WXYZ) — The hunt is on to track down a virus circulating in Southeast Michigan – described as the "highly pathogenic avian influenza," better known as the bird flu.

While the risk to humans is considered to be low, avian influenza can have a devastating impact on wild and commercial bird flocks.

But, a group of scientists at Michigan State University are operating in emergency mode to help identify the virus, limit its spread and protect public health.

"When we say we are in emergency mode, that is the mode we are in right now," Annabelle Wise, an academic specialist in the virology section, said.

The images look like a scene from a summer blockbuster. Scientists in body coverings with respirators handling highly contagious pathogens. But it's not Hollywood fiction, it's the work being done every day at MSU's veterinary diagnostics lab in the hunt for highly pathogenic avian influenza.

"We're providing testing for everything from wild birds to domestic birds, whether those birds are in small backyard blocks or if they are part of large commercial facilities," Dr. Kimberly Dodd, the director of MSU's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said.

The lab is the only state-approved lab by the USDA for this kind of work. Diagnostic teams here went on high alert back in February when the virus was first confirmed in a backyard flock, setting up after-hours and weekend teams to test specimens whenever they come in. Time is essential to limiting the spread.

"From the time of receipt to reporting out the results is generally three to 4 hours," Dodd said.

The virus has been reported in 40 states. It's the biggest bird flu outbreak since 2015 when more than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the US died from bird flu or were destroyed to stop the viral spread.

The USDA says those birds accounted for about 12% of America's consumer-egg laying population and 8% of turkeys raised for consumption.

The virus can also impact other animals, too. Three fox kits in Lapeer, Macomb and St. Clair counties were found suffering from neurological issues.

"They were tested for high pet avian influenza. And the signal in the brain was tremendous," Roger Maes, the head of the virology section, said.

Nature may help contain the outbreak. Highly pathogenic avian influenza is highly-susceptible to UV light and high temperatures.

The onset of summer may mean the end of the outbreaks is in sight. Until then, the diagnosticians at MSU's Veterinary Diagnostics Lab will remain on high alert.

"To protect our food source, to ensure food security and food safety, and that's a big component of what we do," Dodd said.

They're also protecting our wallets. In the 2015 outbreak egg, production fell by about 10%, but egg prices jumped more than 60%. The price for boneless & skinless turkey breasts jumped by 75%.

This has real financial consequences for families too. If you have backyard birds experts say take down bird feeders.

The virus spreads through direct and indirect contact and bird feeders are a way wild birds can come in close proximity to domestic flocks.