Pictures: Koen van Weel, Bioveterinary Research, and ANP
On Friday 18 November, Eefke Weesendorp, head of the department of diagnostics and emergency response at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (the former CVI) and three of her colleagues were going through the results of routine tests on water birds. ‘The results of most of the diagnostic tests were negative. But then I saw positive signs in one set: signs of avian flu.’
An hour later, once all the test results had been matched with the samples, it became clear that only wild birds were infected with avian flu type H5 (see box). The commercial poultry that was tested was not infected at this point, so emergency regulations did not have to come into effect. In the night of 25-26 November, however, things took a turn for the worse. Wessendorp’s colleagues found an avian flu virus of the H5 strain in samples taken from a duck farm. That Saturday all the ducks on the farm in question were culled, along with the poultry on nearby farms. The latest outbreak of avian flu in the Netherlands had begun.
Wageningen Bioveterinary Research in Lelystad is always prepared for the outbreak of animal diseases, says Weesendorp. It is comparable with a fire brigade, hoping no fires will break out and nobody will need saving, but always prepared for the possibility. Equipment and supplies are kept in good order, people are trained and they all know what their task is. ‘Our overall goal as an emergency organization is to provide a fast diagnosis so that the government and the livestock sector can take action fast to prevent diseases from spreading any further. Everything is geared to that.’
Three parties are involved in combatting animal diseases in the Netherlands: the ministry of Economic Affairs, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) and Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR). They divide the work into four phases: normal, alert, crisis and completion. In ‘peacetime’, when there are no alerts for animal diseases, there are always six people on call at WBVR. ‘Sometimes you get a report at night of something suspicious and then you are in the lab till 6 o’clock in the morning,’ says Wessendorp. ‘Even though your agenda for that day is full of appointments. But when you are on duty you know that can happen.’ The protocol for dealing with emergencies is constantly updated during peaceful periods too.
The alert phase starts when a notifiable disease breaks out in a neighbouring country or if the number of cases of the disease in wild animals goes up, posing an increasing threat to the commercial sector in the Netherlands. Emergency response project leader Eric de Kluijver goes through the procedures once again just to be on the safe side. He also alerts suppliers and extra staff, so they can be prepared for a crisis. ‘We have to be able to upscale at any moment. To make sure there are enough people at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research who can carry out the necessary tests in a crisis, we conduct training courses every year. Key figures are then trained in their role during a crisis. And everything is agreed, from the precise tests and the time they are expected to take, to the division of tasks among the members of the crisis team.’
The crisis phase starts when an outbreak is observed on a commercial farm – as happened on Saturday 26 November. WBVR then forms two emergency teams: an ‘internal’ team in the laboratory and an ‘external’ team which has contact with policymakers, researchers and epidemioligists. De Kluijver: ‘If we have to test an awful lot of samples, we switch to a more automatized testing method.’ If necessary colleagues from other departments of Wageningen University & Research can help out.
It is hard work in the period before the emergency teams are set up, but after that the emergency procedures run pretty normally, say Weesendorp and De Kluijver. It remains important to build in enough breaks, says De Kluijver. ‘If you start running the minute it gets busy, you keep on running. Whereas it stays busy, whether you run faster or not. If you don’t take any breaks, you run the risk of making mistakes and running yourself into the ground.’
Weesdendorp has clear memories of the 2014 outbreak of avian flu. ‘It was very intensive then, but we came up with fantastic teamwork.’ She enjoys her work in diagnostics more than her previous work in ‘ordinary’ research. ‘It is much more dynamic, no two days are the same. And the result is much more tangible too. Because you feel that you are really doing something for the Dutch livestock industry.’
Later, when the danger for livestock has abated and this bird flu crisis is over, Bioveterinary Research will go into the ‘completion’ phase. Evaluations and archiving take place and it is decided whether any additional research is needed into the history of this epidemic.
Identifying H and N strains
Avian influenza, or bird flu, comes in various guises, known as H and N strains. The H and the N stand for surface proteins of the virus. There are 16 H strains and 9 N strains. Some of the viruses are highly pathogenic (extremely infectious) while others are low-pathogenic. The H5N8 now afflicting the Netherlands is highly infectious for wild birds and poultry.
Staff at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) continuously test wild birds and poultry for avian flu. They do this in laboratories that are sealed off from outsiders for safety reasons. Couriers bring the dead (wild) animals for analysis and tissue samples from living animals to the WBVR service desk in Lelystad. Their arrival is announced beforehand by the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). Everything is packed and labelled to strict standards and every sample is put into the lab information system. In the lab the samples are studied for genetic material (RNA) from viruses. Tests for the presence of H5 or H7 (highly pathogenic avian flu viruses) take six hours. Identifying the N type takes at least another 36 hours.
Bioveterinary Research works for the ministry of Economic Affairs and is not allowed to say how many tests it is carrying out.