France launches first order for bird flu vaccines

A poultry farm in Castelnau-Tursan

By Sybille de La Hamaide

PARIS (Reuters) -France has launched a tender for 80 million doses of bird flu vaccines in order to be ready to start its vaccination programme in the autumn, it said on Thursday, the first member of the European Union to start such a scheme.

The announcement came after French health and safety agency ANSES earlier on Thursday endorsed the government's plan to vaccinate millions of poultry birds against bird flu, setting out three scenarios for the campaign.

Avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, has killed hundreds millions of birds around the world but governments have been reluctant to roll out vaccination programmes mainly because of the trade curbs these would entail.

France - the worst affected European Union country last year, when it culled more than 20 million birds - said in December it aimed to start vaccinations this autumn.

The pre-order, to be confirmed if final test results are positive, is to vaccinate ducks only, a spokesperson at the French agriculture ministry said.

Ducks are very receptive to the virus and remain asymptomatic for many days, increasing the risk of transmission.

France has mandated two companies, France's Ceva Animal Health and Germany's Boehringher Ingelheim to develop bird flu vaccines for ducks. Ceva said initial results were "very promising", notably by sharply reducing the excretion of the virus by infected birds.

ANSES, which the ministry had tasked with presenting a range of vaccination strategies, reported back with three scenarios on Thursday.

The most limited plan would involve vaccinating all breeding poultry birds, which would entail millions of doses.

A second option to be applied simultaneously or at a later stage, adds foie gras ducks, free-range turkeys and ducks and future free-range layer pullets; and a third all layer hens and web-footed poultry not already covered elsewhere.

None of the scenarios involves vaccinating broilers which account for the majority of France's poultry, considered at relatively low risk of catching the virus.

The government tends to at least partly follow ANSES recommendations.

"In view of the particularly worrying epidemiological context... the agency stresses the importance of implementing the broadest possible vaccination strategy, provided the means are available," the agency advised.

ANSES also stressed the capacity for the virus to jump across species barriers, posing a potential risk to human health.

Bird flu is transmitted by infected faeces from migrating wild birds or direct contact with contaminated feed, clothing and equipment, or through the air.

(Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; editing by John Stonestreet and Susan Fenton)