This adjustment comes as part of efforts to address the largest epidemic of bird flu yet in the European Union.
Avian flu is a highly contagious viral disease that mainly rages among poultry and wild waterfowl. There are two strains of the virus; high- or low-pathogenic viruses, known as HPAI and LPAI, respectively.
Last year, Europe was hit by the worst wave of bird flu to date. The outbreaks and necessary measures taken against them pose a serious threat to the poultry industry and our pigeon sport. The latest quarterly report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) lists an unprecedented number of outbreaks between October 2021 and September 2022 in 37 European countries, with 50 million domestic poultry and birds killed in affected facilities. The virus also wreaked havoc in the United States last year and is currently on the rise in South America and parts of Asia. The virus is far from being found only in birds, and lately is being detected more and more in a variety of terrestrial and marine mammals.
Existing European rules are therefore being amended to combat the most serious form of bird flu, HPAI. Where it was previously prohibited, Member States are now allowed to use animal vaccines (for both human-born and wild terrestrial and aquatic animals, including all species of birds) to prevent and control HPAI under very strict conditions. The updated legislation goes into effect March 12 and was drafted in accordance with the international standards of the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH, formerly OIE).
According to a statement from the European Commission, this should ensure that safe movements of animals and products from establishments and areas where vaccination has been carried out can resume.
Given the most serious wave of outbreaks in recent history in the European Union, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides said that "the fight against avian flu is at the top of our priorities." "These outbreaks cause enormous damage to the agricultural sector and hamper trade," she noted in a statement.
AVEC, the sector representative of the European poultry industry, welcomes the move to a common EU framework for vaccination. They say it is increasingly difficult to control the spread of HPAI without vaccination. However, they caution that vaccination may not be the only solution to all bird flu problems. There will be a need for adequate surveillance even after vaccination to control outbreaks in poultry farms.
Currently, there is no approved vaccine against avian influenza that can be used in poultry and farmed birds. Research and experiments are currently underway in France and the Netherlands. With the new legislation, the European Commission is already enabling Member States to rapidly deploy a vaccine to contain serious outbreaks on their territory in future emergency situations.
Vaccination program and risk assessment
In the future, approved vaccines against avian influenza can only be used by Member States according to an official vaccination program. Before vaccinating, Member States will have to notify each other and the European Commission.
Furthermore, the use of the vaccine will always be under the supervision of an official government veterinarian who will control the distribution and administration of the vaccine.
Given that vaccination may be an appropriate means of controlling or eliminating a disease such as avian influenza in some circumstances but not in others, and that its use may sometimes have negative consequences (e.g., on trade), Member States must conduct a risk assessment before they are allowed to vaccinate.
The risk assessment that precedes a vaccination program against HPAI will therefore include an economic evaluation, including a cost-benefit analysis and identification of the impact on the freedom of disease of the Member State concerned and the trade restrictions that may be imposed by third countries or territories as a result of vaccination.
The European Commission will assess this evaluation in each separate case.
Incidentally, this restriction on the use of vaccines against avian influenza does not apply to vaccines against Newcastle disease (so-called "pseudo bird flu"). Vaccination against Newcastle disease is already mandatory for movements of birds within the European Union and upon entry into the Union from third countries. This practice has proven to be safe and effective in preventing Newcastle disease and will continue without any additional restrictions.
Member States will be able to implement 2 types of vaccination programs, emergency and preventive vaccination, against avian influenza.
Emergency vaccination during outbreaks
Two geographical zones, a vaccination zone and a peri-vaccination zone, will be established as part of emergency vaccination for a specified period of time (similar to the surveillance and protection zones already implemented for current HPAI outbreaks) with enhanced clinical and laboratory surveillance to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccinations and detect any new outbreaks within the zones.
If the zones are located on the territory of different Member States, the competent authorities will work together to set them up.
The competent authority may implement emergency vaccination in both affected and unaffected establishments. Normally these establishments are located in the restriction zones, but they can also be located outside such zones.
Different emergency vaccination strategies may be implemented depending on the situation. Vaccination applied in affected establishments where vaccinated animals will be killed is considered suppressive-emergency vaccination. Emergency vaccination may also be applied to prevent the spread of the disease in animal populations exposed to infection and kept in establishments where the disease has not yet been suspected or confirmed. In such cases, the animals may be killed or kept alive under special conditions.
Emergency vaccination may also be used in wild animals when the risk of spreading the disease in kept or wild animal populations requires it.
The movement of animals within the vaccination zones will again require a number of conditions to be met and the movement to be approved by the competent authority. Any foreign movement will still have to be accompanied by an official animal health certificate issued by the government.
To prevent the spread of avian influenza or to avoid potential losses and the need to apply drastic disease control measures, Member States may also decide under strict conditions to apply preventive vaccination in certain establishments, even when the disease is not present in a country or zone.
Impact on pigeon sport and trade
Allowing vaccination against avian influenza could potentially solve the many problems that currently exist for allowing pigeon racing to continue on the European continent and international trade in racing pigeons. However, much depends on how the legislation will be implemented in practice in the future, what trade arrangements the European Member States can make with third countries for the export of poultry and captive birds, and finally to what extent the vaccines will prove to be an effective means of control against the spread of HPAI among poultry and captive birds.
For the foregoing reasons, the FCI (Fédération Colombophiles International) veterinary committee is currently in consultation with the European Commission and WOAH to better align European legislation and international standards with pigeon sport and trade.