To catch a (bird) killer: Inside last winter’s battle against avian influenza

When something mysterious kills an animal in B.C., the scientists at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford get the call.

Avian pathologist Victoria Bowes inspects a swan for signs of disease during ongoing surveillance for avian influenza at the province's Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford.

Avian pathologist Victoria Bowes inspects a swan for signs of disease during ongoing surveillance for avian influenza at the province's Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford.

After decades of looking at dead birds, Victoria Bowes knew within minutes of looking at the turkeys in front of her that something was seriously awry.

Something had killed the birds the previous day, on Nov. 30, 2014, but there were no signs of trauma, disease or any of the other visible clues that Bowes looks for as an avian pathologist at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal Health Centre. Yet the lack of evidence was itself a sort of clue – one that prompted a phone call to the farmer in question and then a rushed request for a lab test. The consequence of a positive result would be vast: poultry exports would grind to a halt, farmers would spend weeks worrying about the state of their flocks and, for Bowes and her colleagues, the upcoming holiday season would become remembered for seven-day work weeks and late nights in the lab.

The lab test would take hours, however, so Bowes moved on to her other cases. Soon she found herself looking at broiler breeder chickens with swollen faces and hemorrhaging throats.

“That was when my blood stopped cold,” she said. “The immediate thing was: ‘This looks like influenza.”

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In British Columbia, when something mysterious has killed or sickened an animal – whether a fish, bird or mammal – the scientists at the Animal Health Centre at the base of Sumas Mountain on Angus Campbell Road are the ones who often get the call. The centre, which employs 35 people, houses the provincial veterinary diagnostic laboratory and has high-level accreditation found only at two other facilities in the country. Each year, it accepts 6,000 case submissions of a variety of species. It doesn’t matter if the animal is wild or domestic, a family pet or destined for the dinner table, pathologists see a diverse cross-section of the province’s fauna. On the day of a visit by a News reporter, one of the centre’s nine pathologists is examining a dead skunk, its smell permeating the entire facility.

The centre’s diagnostic lab is actually a cluster of more than half a dozen different rooms, each with their own function. Viruses used in diagnostic tests are kept cooled to -70 C in massive stand-up freezers, a huge electron microscope takes very fine images of viruses, and clusters of bacteria are grown in climate-controlled fridge-like appliances. One of the most important additions to pathologists’ toolkits in recent years is a “thermal cycler” that analyzes DNA of diseases in order to confirm diagnoses.

The largest space, near the centre of the lab, is the postmortem room, which features three large tables and a gigantic door through which a crane capable of lifting two tonnes can bring livestock in the room for diagnosis. In addition to the full-animal necropsies, pathologists also frequently use tissue samples, swabs or blood samples to make a diagnosis.

Bowes, who – like all animal pathologists – first trained as a veterinarian, says she often follows her well-developed intuition when trying to make a diagnosis. But the targets keep moving, as viruses and other killers of creatures morph and adapt in response to antibiotics and vaccines.

“Certain diseases that maybe didn’t cause a problem in the past have suddenly emerged to become a problem,” she said. “It keeps me humble because just when you think it’s easy, something will come along.”

Industry shifts are also seen in the birds that come before Bowes, with free-run or antibiotic-free chickens susceptible to different diseases than those kept in cages.

As production systems change, Bowes said, “we see some diseases eliminated and new ones emerge.”

For the province and Abbotsford’s agriculture industry, the lab performs a vital role in ensuring the safety and marketability of the food destined for people’s plates by testing for diseases like avian flu, swine flu, and mad cow disease that can close borders and, if not eradicated, put farmers out of business.

That was hammered home in 2004, when an avian influenza outbreak led to the slaughter of 17 million birds. The outbreak led to improvements in avian health protocols and response. The area had seen smaller outbreaks in 2005 and 2009, and when lab technicians confirmed the disease the afternoon of Dec. 1, 2014, a series of protocols swung into action.

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Four hours after the lab test was submitted, it came back positive, and lab technicians knew their lives were about to get intensely busy. Soon, a lab in Ottawa would confirm the virus, along with its deadly and virulent nature. Back in Abbotsford at the lab, there was a sense that “the battle’s on,” Bowes said.

Over three weeks, the virus would be detected at 12 locations in Chilliwack, Abbotsford and Langley. At the Animal Health Centre, Bowes helped co-ordinate the efforts, with the lab running overtime to check a wide-ranging surveillance program that aimed to detect the virus as soon as it emerged at a new farm. What had been the break room was now the war room, where twice-a-day debriefings were held as government and a co-operative and poultry industry pulled out the stops to halt the spread of the virus.

“We went non-stop for a very long-time,” said Bowes, who credited her colleagues and farmers for their response. “We had no idea how big and how long the outbreak would be.”

Although the virus was only detected on one backyard operation after Dec. 17, for months there was always the sense that it could manifest again.

“You feel like you’re going to get blindsided.”

But the pathologists never were. A little more than a year later, Bowes calls the response a “critical success” that shows how far the industry and government have come since the 2004 outbreak. While more than 200,000 birds died in B.C., in the United States, authorities chased the virus around as it killed millions of birds over several states.

Although the 2014/15 outbreak was quelled, Bowes said there is a constant effort to learn from past incidents and improve early detection and containment strategies.

“We have a highly susceptible poultry population, we have a migratory pathway fairly close by … so there is continual risk.”