Every three years, the avian influenza research community meets up and share the latest developments in the field. The conference name is International Workshop on Avian Influenza, and last week Athens, Georgia, was host for the 9th workshop in the series. It is sort of a standing joke that something bad happens just before the conference, and this year was no exception: the HPAI H5N8 incursion in North America warranted several late breaking sessions (and things are still unfolding as I write these lines, with confirmed new HPAI H5 outbreaks in several states).
My main focus was (needless to say) the wild bird session, where we had two talks, and where a lot of other interesting talks were given. Sharing new information is a vital part of a conference, but perhaps more important is the ability to meet colleagues in real life, have a chat and a beer. It is good to get a face to names that you just have seen in print before, and an informal setting can do wonders for sparking of new projects. Actually, many of my papers have started as a napkin drawing on a conference.
So what were the main things that were shared on this conference? Of course, H5N8 in wild birds and domestic poultry partly stole the show, with important talks on epidemiology from Europe (UK, Germany, Netherlands), Asia (South Korea) and North America (US, Canada), plus presentations of pathogenicity in different animal models. Importantly, this virus (and its reassorted descendants) seems to be carried more or less asymptomatically in dabbling ducks. This makes it more prone to be spread geographically with wild ducks, and perhaps will make it endemic in wild birds for the coming years. Those are dire prospects.
Also the wild bird session dealt a lot with H5N8, and the efforts made for ramping up surveillance. There were also talks from Georgia (the real Georgia, in central Asia), where Nicola Lewis and Zurab Javakhishvili have a monitoring scheme rolling since a few years. Our map of avian influenza in wild birds is totally dominated by studies in US, Southeast Asia, and northwestern Europe, and it is therefore extremely important to get more data from other flyways. This also goes for Africa (where surveillance is going down) and South America (where it is going up – yay!). One of the talks I enjoyed the most was on the existence of influenza viruses in wintering Ruddy Turnstones in south US, showing that viruses persists in this host despite low densities of birds at the wintering grounds. That is important stuff!
Although most work in wild birds is screening based, a couple of talks were based on experiments, including our vaccine study (which we are submitting soon – will get back to that once it is published), Josanne Verhagen’s work on gull viruses, and Neus Latorre-Margalef’s studies on heterosubtypic immunity in mallards. I think the hypothesis driven experimental setups should be explored much more, ideally by joining forces between virologists and ecologists. We have work to do.
What did I lack? Not too much actually, it was a good mix of talks and a great meeting venue. If I had to say something, it would be the absence of true evolution talks. Many trees were presented at this conference, generally to say that this segment was of North American avian or Eurasian avian origin, but only little was presented on how to understand the evolutionary processes of these viruses in their natural reservoirs. There are some great molecular geneticists working with flu, so next time I would love to see some plenary talks on this. And if topped up with more host immunology processes I will salute you!
So, back in the office, a bit jet lagged but inspired. Time to write up a few of the studies we have been working on. Let’s get moving.