While SA’s devastating bird flu outbreak abates, researchers work to eradicate virus

Poultry farm

Photo by Bloomberg

14th November 2023

By: News24Wire


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Newly released research showed the potential of gene editing technology to break the back of the avian influenza virus which recently swept across South Africa, resulting in the culling of nine-million birds.

The virus, commonly known as bird flu, is a global issue for the poultry industry, but will be fresh in South African minds as a recent outbreak left many retailers without eggs following the culling of millions of birds.

The general manager of the broiler division of the SA Poultry Association, Izaak Breitenbach, said six-million commercial layer birds have been culled in recent months in addition to the three-million broiler breeder birds that were also culled.

Breitenbach added the shortage of eggs was likely to persist for around six months despite the fact the outbreak had been brought under control with no new flocks being infected in the last week.

He said a local vaccine was being tested for the H7 strain of the rapidly mutating virus, and vaccines were being imported from overseas for the H5 strain.

While the problems caused by the virus persist, a team of researchers recently shared findings that have the potential to put the issue of bird flu in the rearview mirror for the poultry industry.

Doctor Alewo Idoko-Akoh was the lead author of a research paper published in Nature Communications in October which showed the remarkable potential that tiny changes to the genetics of chickens have on protecting the birds from the virus. 

In an interview with News24, Idoko-Akoh said the purpose of the research was to see if a change to the genes in chickens that accommodate the virus could reduce the susceptibility of the birds to the virus and its transmission.

The technique used for the research is a technology called gene editing, whereby tiny changes to the genetic code of organisms are made to target specific traits that will be expressed.

He added this was different from genetic modification, where the genetic material of other organisms was often used to alter the code of an organism.

So, by altering just a few genes in the chickens that are needed by the virus to be accommodated, the researchers wanted to discover whether they could make it impossible for the bird to become infected.

"We are basically thinking of a permanent solution and one that does not necessarily require actual costs such as distributing vaccines.

"It's basically like trying to solve the problem at its source," said Idoko-Akoh.


The results of the research were promising, he added.

After creating the chickens with the single gene edit, the chickens were exposed to a low dose of avian influenza, which mimicked the dose they would expect in normal circumstances.

Nine out of 10 of the gene-edited birds showed complete resistance to the virus and did not transmit it to other non-edited birds.

To test the effectiveness of the edits under extreme conditions, the researchers also exposed the chickens to a high dose of the virus, which was 1 000 times greater than the low dose.

In this experiment, half of the chickens became infected, and half were resistant. 

To produce total immunity, Idoko-Akoh said more than one gene in the chickens would have to be edited.

He added gene editing should be viewed as one of an array of biosecurity measures to combat avian influenza.

"I think of gene editing as an essential tool to add to the war chest that we currently use to fight against bird flu outbreaks."


Idoko-Akoh said members of the public often held hesitancies regarding gene editing technology, mentally lumping it together with genetic modification.

"GMO has been out there for a number of years and there is significant resistance to GMO in many countries.

"The anti-science rhetoric has really been rising. People fear what they do not understand."

Idoko-Akoh said the technology had a demonstrated pattern of success.

It had successfully been showed gene editing could prevent chickens from getting the avian leukosis virus, he added.

Idoko-Akoh said there was a five- to 10-year time horizon before gene-edited chickens, which were not susceptible or able to transmit avian influenza, could start being farmed.


On a personal level, having grown up and studied veterinary science in Nigeria, Idoko-Akoh said he was immensely proud of having contributed to this body of research.

"For us as Africans, it is also important that we are also seen to be contributing to this kind of research, not just necessarily taking up what is developed in Europe or North America."

He added he watched the Discovery Channel and National Geographic growing up and dreamed he would be able to do something similar.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to contribute to this research. To be the lead author on a paper is something I never imagined."

Edited by News24Wire



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