H5N1 HPAI re-erupted in the heart of Europe during June 2007 with infected wild swans and geese in Germany and outbreaks in turkeys and chickens in The Czech Republic. First indications that H5N1 was on the move again came from Russia where scientists found H5N1 in wild ducks in four different regions of Siberia. Forty-seven probes exposed genetic material of the H5N1 virus as well as antibodies in blood serum. Six million domestic birds are considered to be at risk although more than two thirds have been vaccinated, say Russian authorities.

Six dead wild birds found in the Nuremburg area of Germany’s southern state of Bavaria tested positive for H5N1 on 25 June. Five swans and one goose were involved said a spokesperson for the Friedrick Loeffler Institute (FLI), Germany’s national veterinary institute in on the Baltic island of Riems. This is first outbreak in Germany for 2007 and was detected during a national testing programme, said the German veterinary authorities.

Poultry farmers in the Nuremburg area were told to enclose all poultry and a 21-day ban on poultry and poultry products in and out of the area was imposed. Pet owners were warned against allowing dogs and cats to roam freely within the quarantine area.

Outbreak was followed two days later with H5N1 in wild swans in the Frohburg area near Liepzig in the eastern state of Saxony and over 200 km north east of first outbreak. A 3 km quarantine zone was established with same restrictions as around Nuremburg.

Germany recorded one previous outbreak in poultry during April 2006 when 21,000 birds were culled. Scientists were clearly worried that these 2007 outbreaks in wild birds were linked to the simultaneous outbreak in The Czech Republic affecting turkeys on a farm at Tisova in the Pardubice Region of east Bohemia, 150 km east of the capital Prague. Fears were heightened when Elke Reinking spokeswoman for FLI said genetic match between German and Czech virus samples exceeded 99%. 

First outbreak in Czech poultry

Czech veterinarians started to cull thousands of turkeys at the farm on 21 June 2007 after tests confirmed the country's first outbreak of H5N1 in poultry. Veterinary officials declared quarantine and surveillance areas of up to 10 km radius around the farm where preventative measures were taken, including animal testing and a ban on poultry movement in and out. 

"The farm has been sealed off and the flock is being liquidated," said Farm Minister Petr Gandalovic. "There certainly is no reason to panic because there is no danger to people if they stick to basic hygiene rules”, he told CTK.

Soldiers erected a station to disinfect all vehicles, and workers at the farm wore overalls and face masks. Around 1,600 of the 6,000 turkey flock had already been killed by the virus before culling got underway, carried out by farm workers assisted by fire fighters and soldiers. There were 367,000 poultry in the 10 km zone around the affected farm said the minister.

All turkeys on the infected farm and some smaller flocks in the area, amounting to 1,000 birds in all, were culled by 22 June said Czech veterinary services spokesman Zbynek Semerad. Czech veterinary authorities claimed no turkeys from the farm had been released into the retail network, because the flock was still in the growing phase. They remained optimistic that outbreaks would not hit poultry exports but Russia had already announced on 21 June that steps would be taken within days to ban Czech birds, meat, eggs and equipment connected to the poultry industry. Czech Agriculture Minister Petr Gandalovic reacted to the threatened Russian ban during a visit to Tisova on Friday. "It is not possible that international trade is stopped," he said, adding that Prague would seek bilateral negotiations with Moscow with the EU (European Union) also acting as an intermediary.

This was to no avail because Russia officially banned poultry imports from the Czech Republic effective June 25.  Restrictions apply to live birds, incubation eggs, non- thermally-treated feed, feeds and feed additive for birds, and used equipment for keeping and slaughtering poultry said the Federal Veterinary and Phytosanitary Control Service (Rosselkhoznadzor). Other reports suggested imports had also been banned by Ukraine with some restrictions in place by Poland.

Second Czech outbreak

Less than a week later the Czech Agriculture Ministry reported a second outbreak at a farm in Norin just 4 km from the index flock of turkeys. Just 60 birds were infected but all 28,000 chickens (broilers) at the farm as well as poultry bred by local smallholders were culled "Extraordinary veterinary measures will be extended immediately to prevent a further spread of the infection," said Farm Minister Petr Gandalovic. "Given this second farm is just 4 km from the first one, it is highly likely that H5N1 would be confirmed there as well," veterinary authority spokesman Josef Duben told CTK.  Infected farms at both Tisova and Norin were owned by the same agricultural cooperative. The Czech Republic found about a dozen cases of the H5N1 strain in swans in spring 2006, but has never before recorded a case in poultry. That said Czech poultry breeders and processors alike think occurrence of the first case of bird flu at a poultry farm in the Czech Republic will not have a great effect on poultry meat consumption in the country. Zdenek Stepanek, Chief Executive Officer of Xaverov, a leading poultry processor, said veterinary control is preventing infected meat getting on to the market. And chairwoman of the Czech Poultry Association Dagmar Tumova said consumption will most probably not be affected as Czech consumers are very price sensitive. Poultry is the cheapest meat on the Czech market with consumption doubling since 1989. Jana Kindlova spokeswoman for the Agropol Group, one of Czech Republic’s leading suppliers of food and agricultural products said bird flu caused problems on the market in 2006. But these were due to large imports of cheap surplus poultry meat from other European countries where sales had plummeted in response to H5N1 outbreaks around Europe, she told CTK.

Germans worry over source of infection

Finding source of the outbreak in wild birds is a matter of priority, said Germany’s Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer.  "The renewed appearance of bird flu in wild birds in Germany has surprised us in terms of the timing," Seehofer said in a statement. Despite latest outbreaks, Germany has not raised its bird flu alert level, said Thomas Mettenleiter, head of the FLI in a statement to Reuters. "We always thought the disease had not just simply disappeared from Germany and this is reflected in the current risk assessment," he said.

German authorities were comparing latest finds in wild birds with viruses isolated from recent poultry outbreaks in geese in Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic, to see if the H5N1 strain had entered the country or was there all the time since 2006.  Last year, some 13 European Union member states confirmed cases of bird flu - Germany, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Britain, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, France and Hungary - almost entirely in wild swans.

Light was shed on current situation when scientists at FLI confirmed virus strain found in southern Germany had a common source with the virus strain detected in Czech poultry, claiming it was probably spread by wild birds. Elke Reinking spokeswoman for the FLI said, "We assume infected wild birds infected both the Czech poultry and the wild water fowl in Germany." She went on to claim that it would be "highly unusual" for meat exported from the Czech poultry farm to have carried the virus across the border, as suggested earlier by German agriculture officials.

Reinking said an analysis of the viral DNA showed a 99.2 per cent match between virus causing the Czech outbreak and virus in dead swans in the German city of Nuremberg. Both samples were also very similar to the H5N1 virus collected in Kuwait and sequenced in Weybridge, United Kingdom (UK).

Sequencing studies conducted during the recent UK outbreak on the Bernard Matthews turkey farm at Holton in Suffolk revealed an even closer genetic match between that virus and the one that affected Hungarian geese several weeks earlier. Bernard Matthews was importing large volumes of de-boned turkey meat from Hungary on to a UK processing plant in Suffolk, located right next door to the infected turkey farm. After weeks of denial the Hungarian authorities admitted to the UK press that in all probability the H5N1 virus entered the UK on infected Hungarian turkey meat.    

Just as important were subsequent findings showing the Hungarian goose/UK turkey H5N1 strains were very close genetically to strains of H5N1 circulating in wild birds in Eastern Europe during 2006.

The findings in total suggest the H5N1 virus has been lodged in wild bird populations in Eastern Europe since 2006. This is naturally worrying for poultry industries across the entire European continent, and beyond as seen by additional similarities to the Kuwait strain of H5N1.