Victorian Pigeon Virus
Current disease outbreak in Victoria.
Update 17th January
AgriBio and Intervet meetings
Yesterday was a day of meetings. In the afternoon I met with Dr Grant Rawlin and Dr Christina McCowan at Agribio. Essentially the meeting was to bring me up to speed with all the various diagnostic endeavours that are proceeding at AgriBio and AAHL regarding Reovirus. A trial is being set in place to see what effect (if any) the virus has on chickens. There are also plans to investigate whether the virus can be carried by other species of bird that may in turn pass the virus to pigeons. The virus cultures have generated good amounts of virus (not an easy thing) for further testing, such as electron microscopy and gene sequencing. This work is not only being done by AgriBio but is being repeated by AAHL and the University of Melbourne to back up the first set of results. AgriBio staff are well aware of the need for urgency in this diagnostic work and are proceeding as quickly as possible. The sequencing will take a bit longer with results now expected next week. They will be forwarded to me as soon as they are available.
Later in the day, I had a phone hook up with Dr Tom Grimes of Intervet. In order to spend the short period waiting for the Reo sequencing results productively, we are preparing to begin the vaccine sequence comparison as soon as the results are available. We are informing the experts at Intervet now so that they are expecting the sequencing results and are able to make their recommendations on likely cross-immunity as quickly as possible. On Friday I am having a combined hook up with Dr Tom Grimes and Robin Anderson, both of Intervet. Robin is Poultry National Sales Manager. I have been advised that gene sequencing comparisons usually take 2 to 3 days. If it appears that cross-immunity is likely from one of the overseas vaccines, it will then be a matter of getting our import approval submissions to the APVMA and Biosecurity Risk Assessment as quickly as possible. I have already spoken at length to both of these departments and will fly to Canberra once the submissions have been made in an effort to expedite their processing.
As explained in previous posts, if it appears that the available overseas vaccines are unlikely to offer any cross-immunity, then a vaccine will need to be made here. I have made enquiries with 5 companies that may be able to do this work for us. For now though, it is a matter of waiting for the sequencing results and completing the comparisons with the vaccines as promptly as is practicable.
Viruses all the same
To date, all completed testing done at AgriBio and AAHL in Victoria has confirmed that the disease that affected pigeons in WA in May/June and in the eastern states since December is the same.
The Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia ( DAFWA ) has advised that their report on the pigeon disease outbreak that occurred in Western Australia in May has passed to the next regulatory level for approval prior to release! They are unable to give a time when the report will be available. However with Victoria essentially having diagnosed the cause of the disease and with all results indicating that the disease in WA, NSW, SA and Victoria is the same, this report has probably become irrelevant to the diagnostic and disease management processes. Some fanciers will be surprised to learn that this report is still not available, with some suggesting that the delay in diagnosis and failure to close the WA border contributed to the spread of the disease to the rest of the country. The cause for the delay is unclear.
Reo Virus overseas and its implications for Australia
I have had some correspondence from two of my European veterinary colleagues, Dr Pascal Lanneau from Belgium and Dr Dennis Rubbenstroth from Germany. They have advised that they have information on Reovirus infection in 2 unrelated pigeon flocks suffering from disease.
In the first case
- Reoviruses from pigeons were isolated mainly from juvenile birds suffering from diarrhea (McFerran, 1976).
- Serological tests suggested a wide distribution in racing pigeon flocks in Germany (Heffels, 1981).
- The authors sequenced an isolate from a racing pigeon flock with mortality of juvenile birds.
- The virus was isolated in cell culture and sequenced.
- There is apparently only minimal cross-reactivity with chicken reoviruses.
- The sequence belonged to an independent clade (taxonomic group). The next relative originated from a sea lion (70% amino acid identity). (I have no information which segment(s) was/were tested.)
In this case it was unknown, whether Reoviruses in pigeons were species-specific or the result of spill-over infection from other species (e.g. poultry).
In the second case
a Reovirus was suspected in a squab with diarrhea, which originated from a flock with losses of juvenile birds. A virus was isolated in cell culture and provisionally identified as Reovirus by electron microscopy.
This is obviously a very different pattern of disease from what we are seeing in Australia. Dr Rubbenstroth feels (like me) that the virus we are currently dealing with has probably originated in Australia after a genetic shift in a Reo virus already present altered that virus’s ability to cause disease. This raises further questions for Australian fanciers. If this virus has originated here, it has the potential, in theory , to infect the world’s pigeons. There may be some hesitation by some overseas countries to accept for import pigeons coming from Australia, including those being entered in ‘one loft’ races. I have been advised that the Victorian authorities have an obligation to advise the Australian national authorities, who in turn have an international obligation to notify other countries of a potential animal health threat.
AgriBio assisting fanciers to get an accurate diagnosis.
AgriBio has advised that they are once again prepared to back up Victorian veterinarians by covering the cost of diagnostic work on suspect Reo birds. Fanciers who suspect that their birds may be infected are strongly advised to contact their veterinarian and seek an accurate diagnosis. Not every bird that becomes unwell in Victoria over the next few months will have Reo virus and fanciers should not assume that their birds have the disease based simply on the symptoms that they are showing. Fanciers should take an unwell live bird to their veterinarian, who will be able to collect the samples necessary for diagnosis and forward these to AgriBio. There will be charges from your local veterinarian but all costs directly associated with diagnostic testing will be covered by AgriBio. This is a generous offer and is an example of a government body working directly with fanciers to help solve a problem. Fanciers should avail themselves of this service.
Progress. Some technical stuff
I have had contact with Dr Christina McCowan at Agribio today. Christina is guiding the gene sequencing process. She advises that the sequencing is taking a bit longer than envisaged and will not be completed until early next week. This is still very quick. We were hoping that the results would be available this week but there are constraints on this process. She has also advised that the embryos from virus isolation are showing positive changes that are consistent with viral, possibly Reo viral disease. She will look at them histologically and Agribio will examine the fluids in various ways, mainly molecular. She is also expecting more electron microscopy (EM) from AAHL within the next week.
Agribio is sending some tissues to Prof Amir Noormohammadi at the University of Melbourne so that he can run the chicken Reo PCR that his department has developed on Victorian samples. The positive results reported earlier were done on WA pigeon samples
The next week is a pivotal one for the Australian pigeon community. The sequencing results and then their comparison with the available vaccines will determine whether we will be applying to import a vaccine or need to make one in Victoria. The 2 authorities who need to OK the import of a vaccine are the APVMA and Biosecurity Risk assessment. I have spoken to both the APVMA and Biosecurity. The APVMA indicated that, with a critical national need (as here), they could issue an import permit in 1-3 months. Biosecurity will take longer; they estimate 3-6 months to issue their permits. If the sequencing indicates likely cross immunity and the permit application process proceeds smoothly, then this would mean the entire country can race and show this year even if this means for some organisations starting their season a bit later or running a compressed or shorter season. To make a vaccine would take 18 months so this means potentially no competition. I have been advised that it is important that the decision makers are made aware of a critical national need. To this end, I will endeavour to set up meetings with Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer in Canberra (as we did with the PMV) outbreak and also the Minister, Mr Barnaby Joyce.
I have contacted both Zoetis and Intervet and arranged to forward the sequencing results as soon as they are available to their experts so they can evaluate the potential for cross immunity from their chicken vaccines to pigeons.
As many fanciers are aware, there are reports from the USA about a mystery disease killing large numbers of pigeons there. Some Australian fanciers have been concerned that it may be the same disease as in Australia. I have contacted a number of my US veterinary colleagues and have been advised that a number of these cases have been diagnosed as PMV. Other cases are still being investigated. I will make veterinary results available as I receive them
Since Monday eleven new lofts have either been confirmed or are under strong suspicion of having the disease. One is in Dandenong. The rest are all in Melbourne’s north west. Of these, three are non- racing lofts
Correct PMV dose
There has been a suggestion that the dose for PMV vaccine is too high and that the vaccine in its adjuvant (i.e. its carrier or base) predisposes the birds to illness and infertility. A dose of 0.25 ml has been suggested. The recommended dose of both Poulvac and Neucovac killed La Sota vaccines in Australia is 0.5 ml twice, 4 weeks apart. The dose of 0.5 ml was proposed by the Consultative Committee for Emergency Animal Disease (CCEAD). It was also the dose used during the 18-month vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013. One of the principal aims of the 18-month PMV vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013 was to ensure that the suggested vaccine protocol did the pigeons no harm. No harm could be demonstrated. The test results passed the rigorous standards of the APVMA enabling Pfizer/Zoetis to register the vaccine for use in pigeons. The trial was also published in the prestigious peer-reviewed Australian Veterinary Journal. These ultimate authorities were happy with the conclusions that the suggested protocol was not harmful to pigeons and conferred strong immunity. The killed La Sota-based vaccine used in Australia is used in many counties around the world including the UK and USA. It has been suggested that the dose of 0.5 ml is not the manufacturer’s recommendation. I emailed today Mr Phil Lehrbach who is in charge of Zoetis’ (the vaccine’s manufacturer) product distribution for Australasia and SE Asia. He advised that the dose is 0.5 ml. There are other brands of La Sota vaccine available in the world where the recommendation is that a different volume be injected. Unlike some other drugs, the vaccine volume is not based on weight but the level of activity of the vaccine. This means that a stronger vaccine may require a lower injection volume. People and particularly media who advise a different, particularly lower dose rate must be prepared to accept responsibility for pigeons catching PMV because fanciers followed their advice and gave a different dose that failed to develop protective immunity in their birds. They should also be prepared to back up such opinions with published peer-reviewed scientific data (as with the recommended dose) rather than just someone’s theory. Fanciers should give PMV vaccine at a dose of 0.5 ml twice, 4 weeks apart, and should be confident that the vaccine is not harming their birds.
I spoke to Dr Christina McCowan at AgriBio today. She believes they are still on track to have the gene sequencing completed by the end of next week. This is great work. As explained earlier this will give a good indication as to whether the Reo chicken vaccines are likely to also be protective for pigeons. The sequencing work will also give an indication whether the pigeon Reo virus is likely to, in fact, infect chickens. It may also allude to the origins of the virus.
Professor Amir Noormohammadi at the University of Melbourne has produced a chicken Reo virus PCR test. PCR tests are very specific and check for matching sequences of DNA in a sample. The chicken Reo PCR test was today run on 4 pigeon livers from confirmed Reo cases.. All 4 tests were positive. The chicken Reo PCR registered a positive result even though only pigeon Reo was present. This may indicate that there are significant similarities between the 2 viruses. This test will also be useful in diagnosing Reo virus in suspect pigeons. Amir’s gene sequencing is also proceeding well. Fanciers should be aware that there are many very capable vets and pathologists giving their skills and time to give us the answers on Reo virus.
Previous veterinary work has indicated that only a full genotyping of the Sigma C gene on the Reo genome will give an indication of antigenic relatedness.
Because it is a significant indicator of likely cross immunity both AgriBio and the University of Melbourne are focusing on this particularly important sequence area
Today we have had cases confirmed through our clinic at Eltham, Lysterfield and Whittlesea. Another loft is under suspicion in the Dandenong ranges
Drug Company and regulatory body meetings
I have spoken today to vaccine supply companies and also the relevant government bodies involved with biosecurity risk assessment and the issuing of vaccine import permits. The time frames that they have suggested make racing a possibility this year (but only just ). Over the next 10 days the pigeon Reo sequencing results should be completed. The experts in this area will then assess and compare these results with the available Reo chicken vaccines to see if there is likely to be any cross immunity. If this is the case then permit applications will be prepared. This is a big job and there is a cost involved that the pigeon fraternity will need to cover. The permit applications will then be submitted. If successful, a vaccine will then be able to be imported. I feel that fanciers should continue (at least for the time being) to manage their lofts as if racing was going to proceed. There are however a number of significant hurdles to cross. The most significant of these is that there may be little or no cross immunity. In this case, a vaccine will need to be made here and , after speaking to several vaccine manufacturing companies, this may take up to 18 months. I must say that the biosecurity and APVMA (Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicine) representatives as well as the pharmaceutical people that I have spoken to today have all been most informative and helpful. Australian fanciers can be assured that these people are doing what they can to assist us
Other issues today
The University of Melbourne is working on a Reo virus PCR diagnostic test. This test checks for Reo DNA in samples such as droppings. This will make it quicker, easier and cheaper to diagnose suspect Reo birds.
There has been reference on the internet to a toxic bacteria bowel /liver syndrome. DAFWA ( Dept of Agriculture and Food WA ) has advised that histopathology done on birds that had died of the disease did not show erosive inflammation of the bowel wall or virus present there. Also the bacteria in the bowel, when cultured, were all identified as just normal bacteria. The proposed condition is not supported by the results.
I have had contact with avian vets in South Africa, USA and western Europe . All have advised that strains of Reo virus occur in pigeons there but that these are regarded as an incidental finding and are not thought to be associated with disease. To date, the strain of Reo virus causing disease in Australia seems to be an exclusively Australian problem.
Apparently, clusters of, as yet unconfirmed, cases have occurred in lofts around Kyabram and Port Augusta. In these lofts, the birds have been confined. This raises the possibility that ,as with PMV, Reo can be carried asymptomatically by non-target bird species, i.e. that other species of bird can carry and transmit this strain of Reo virus to pigeons without becoming unwell themselves.
It is still not known whether this strain of Reo virus is capable of infecting chickens
I have had some fanciers contact me today and say that they have read on the internet that some people are recommending that infected birds be spread around so that more lofts can become infected. The idea, apparently, is that even though a proportion of birds in the loft would die, the others could then be raced! This is something that I most definitely do not recommend. If the same percentage of birds were lost on the eastern seaboard as in WA, this approach would lead to the deaths of between 15% and 40 % of the estimated one million pigeons, i.e. 150,000 to 400,000 birds in the eastern states. Apart from this disturbing figure, other thoughts that cross my mind include:
1. People were outraged when it was revealed that young, healthy but slow greyhounds were euthanized. What would be the public’s response if it was revealed that a readily infectious, high mortality virus was deliberately introduced into a loft of healthy pigeons, knowing that for every 100 birds about 25 would die simply so that the other 75 could race?
2. What would the RSPCA, PETA, the media and the Australian Veterinary Association think of this?
3. Would Australian pigeons still be allowed to be sent to international races such as the Million Dollar Race (an avian veterinary friend in South Africa has confirmed that this virus is not there)?
4. What about all the exhibiters of fancy pigeons and pet pigeons? With stray racing pigeons carrying and spreading the disease, how do these people protect themselves? Could pigeon shows, particularly the big shows where pigeons come from all around the country, proceed? Stray racing pigeons could easily be attracted to even confined pigeons, defecate in the vicinity and the virus enter the loft. One fancier, whose loft was infected, could enter birds in the ANPA National show with its average entry of 3000 birds and decimate the best exhibition birds in the country.
5, It would be very divisive. The sport would be divided between those that were infected and those that were not. The sport should pull together over issues like this and not become further divided.
Fanciers should remember (please refer to my post of 30th December) that recovered birds are not immune for life and so therefore can catch the disease again. Recovered birds also carry the virus in their system for many months and are infectious to further birds during this time. Birds cannot be ‘cleaned out’ with medication .This approach will not allow the problem to go away. There will always be vulnerable birds and ongoing outbreaks ( as we are seeing with PMV )
My personal opinion is that this is a very arrogant and selfish approach by what I think is likely to be a small number of fanciers, simply so that they can race. Correct decisions need to be made by informed people.
This may be a good time for the Australian National Racing Pigeon Board to demonstrate its relevance and issue a central directive.
To some extent, I think this sort of talk is a panicked response to this situation. We still don’t have all the information that we need to make good decisions. I would remind fanciers that the final diagnostic tests are still in progress . As I advised on yesterday’s post AgriBio has advised that the virus sequencing results may be available as early as the end of next week. I have today spoken with Pfizer. They have advised that it may be possible to import one of their vaccines within 2 to 3 months if in fact the sequencing results indicate that it may give protection to Australian pigeons.
I have had discussions with Dr Christina Mc Cowan at AgriBio today. To some fanciers it may seem as if progress is slow but in terms of virus ID, things are proceeding at a blistering pace. The second egg passage of virus will occur this week and all going well the virus sequencing may be completed by the end of next week. We will then be able to see if these results are consistent with the electron microscopy images. As discussed in earlier emails whether we are able to race this year or not probably depends on the gene sequencing results. If we find that the Reo virus shares a lot of similarities with the Chicken Reo virus vaccines overseas then there should be a reasonable amount of cross immunity and these vaccines should be able to protect our pigeons. Even if there is a lower amount of shared genes we may still be able to protect our birds with these vaccines but may have to vaccinate them several times. We will still have to face the hurdle of getting APVMA approval to import a vaccine. All going well this has the potential to be done in several months. It may however not be possible to get the permit before the middle of the year. If there is little similarity on the gene sequencing between the Australian Reo and overseas chicken Reo virus vaccines then the other alternative will be to have a vaccine made here. This is a long process and I have been advised that it would probably not be completed until the middle of next year (which means that we would probably not be racing)
I have spoken to Dr Mark White today. Dr White will be familiar to many Sydney fanciers. He runs Treidlia Biovet Pty Ltd , a company that makes vaccines . I am grateful for his input and advice. He advises :-
“1) Getting approval to import vaccines is not easy. We have been involved with this in other areas. Realistically, given all the regulatory hurdles, especially with viral vaccines, I don’t believe anybody could do that in time for this coming racing season. That’s aside from whether such a vaccine would give cross-protection or not.
2) Getting approval to make vaccines here is not easy either. Again there are a lot of regulatory hurdles, especially for viral vaccines. For example the seed and the cell-line must be approved by Quarantine as if they were imported ingredients. Again I don’t believe anybody could do it in time for the coming racing season. Especially since at this time we don’t even have a defined prototype seed or a manufacturing method.
3) The other obstacle is that currently there are no production facilities licensed in Australia to make viral vaccines that are interested in niche small scale vaccines like this. There are only the big companies making big products.
It’s a combination of regulatory barriers and differences between local and overseas strains of the virus. A Reovirus vaccine would need to be an across-the-board vaccine as truly autogenous vaccines for small scale operations like lofts are not really viable, especially for viral vaccine.
In my view the pigeon federations will be faced with hard decisions re racing this year as vaccine availability in time for next year is about the best we could hope for. “
If a vaccine needs to be made Dr White will be able to offer valuable input. Some Australian companies do have registered Reo vaccines overseas and may be able to gain permits to import these vaccines quicker. It may still be possible to get these vaccines before the middle of the year. I intend to start the permit process now so that if the sequencing shows that these vaccines are likely to be protective we will already be a few weeks ‘down the road’ in the permit application process by the time the sequencing results are available. I have meetings with some of the international vaccine companies tomorrow.
Where did Reo come from ?
In the mid 1980’s the PMV virus that causes Newcastle disease in chickens altered slightly. These changes ( also called mutations or genetic shifts) occur commonly but this change altered the type of bird that the virus could infect. The new slightly altered PMV could still infect chickens but no longer caused disease in them. The new virus did however now cause severe disease in pigeons. This is why chicken PMV and pigeon PMV are so similar and also why the chicken PMV vaccine gives good cross immunity in pigeons. Reo viruses are common in the avian world. They are found in many wild birds in Australia. They are commonly found in starlings, sparrows, ducks and a whole range of birds. The most likely thing that has happened is that one of these Reo viruses has changed slightly so that it now infects pigeons. In this way the virus can seem to come from nowhere. It has in fact been here all the time but just in a slightly different form
How is Reo spread?
Reo is caught through the inadvertent ingestion of droppings when the birds are eating or drinking. It can also be caught by inhaling the dust created from drying droppings. If droppings or dust from a loft gets onto fanciers clothing, hands or shoes then the virus can be spread by fanciers going from loft to loft or to shows or sales. Reo can also be shed vertically ie through the egg. This means that youngsters can be weaned with the virus. These youngsters don’t get sick because they also get immunity from their mother. These youngsters can however shed the virus and infect other pigeons ( probably for several months )
Do all birds from infected lofts carry the virus?
No not all birds will be long term carriers . Different birds will clear the virus at different rates. Overseas they report carrier states of 280 to 285 days. This represents the longest that birds are known to carry the virus
Change to AgriBio requirements.
Unfortunately Agri Bio in Victoria has advised that they can no longer accept suspect Reo cases for diagnosis for no charge. They have advised today that they now have plenty of cases already. I am unsure of what is happening in the other states where the disease is not so prevalent. The DPI departments there may still be taking them. Fanciers should ring their local vet or DPI
Commonly asked questions
Why have some birds been sent to WA and not become unwell?
We would expect 1, 2 or 3 of every 10 birds sent to WA and placed in a loft previously diagnosed with Reo virus to die. Of course, this would only happen if the WA birds were still carriers of the virus or the virus was persistent in the loft environment. We know that the carrier state exists for at least several months because birds from around Busselton, when transported several months after the initial outbreak with the previously unwell WA birds caught the disease in the race baskets from them. Overseas Reo virus in pigeons has been shown to have a carrier state of 280-285 days. The Reo virus in Australia is not likely to be significantly different. Further testing will identify more precisely both the length of time that the birds remain carriers and also the length of time that the virus persists in the environment. Fanciers will recall that it took a lengthy trial of 18 months for us to get all the answers about PMV in 2012-2013. Until shown to be otherwise, I feel it is safer to be cautious
Why does it seem to be older birds that are more severely affected by Reo virus?
It is a characteristic of Reo viruses that they target mature birds. It is thought that birds with a functional Bursa of Fabricius are to some extent protected from the virus. The Bursa of Fabricius is a ball of tonsil-like tissue found just inside the vent. This is well developed in young pigeons but shrivels up and disappears by the start of puberty (about 6 months). Once the Bursa has gone, birds become more susceptible to Reo virus infections.
“Toxic Bowel and Liver Syndrome” What the ….. ?
In the last update, I advised fanciers to be wary of some information on the internet. The next day, I saw on the internet an article titled “Official Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease Outbreak Management Information Update”. I feel that I need to inform fanciers that the word ‘Official’ here is misleading in that the ‘update’ is not endorsed by any racing or fancy pigeon organisation or indeed any veterinary authority involved in the primary investigation of the virus. The term ‘Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease’ is not a recognised veterinary term. “Toxic Bowel and Liver Disease “ is not a recognised veterinary condition but rather an invention of the author. The theory suggested in the ‘update’ is purely that of the author. The same author has advised for the last 6 months, and up to only 2 weeks ago, that the current disease problem is best explained by concurrent infections of two different types of Adeno virus in the bowel and liver. He now advises that the problem is the result on an unknown virus in the bowel causing damage and allowing toxic bacteria to proliferate in the bowel and release poisons that damage the liver. Both explanations are not consistent with the available test results and are at odds with the advice of the expert pathologists at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, AAHL (Australian Animal Health Labs) and AgriBio, who all tell us that the birds are dying of irreparable damage to the liver by a likely Reo virus.
I am puzzled as to what might be the motivation behind all this. I do note, however, that the ‘diagnosis’ is accompanied by an elaborate treatment plan. As far as I am aware, the products recommended are not stocked, endorsed or used by any other veterinarian and are therefore all supplied by the author. Fanciers are recommended to buy and use up to six of these products on some days to save their birds. I will leave fanciers to draw their own conclusions.
The way forward
I have a strong sense of obligation to fanciers and believe that they should only be presented with facts, not theories. We all still have a long way to go in solving this problem. In Victoria, it only took 11 days to get a diagnosis. It is still only 19 days since the first cases in Victoria, and although this has spanned a holiday period, significant advances have been made in investigating ways of effectively protecting our birds so that fanciers don’t have to risk losing a proportion of their birds and normal racing and showing can resume. We need to work together if this is going to be achieved as quickly as possible.
In the meantime viral identification continues. I am keen to see the results of the gene sequencing as soon as they are available(about 2-3 weeks ). These results will tell us whether any of the Reo chicken vaccines available overseas are likely to confer cross immunity to pigeons .If these results show that the chicken vaccines are unlikely to work our only other option is to make a vaccine here. I have meetings this week with several vaccine companies.
If fanciers feel that their birds may have caught Reo virus please refer to the treatment advice posted on the24th Dec and also the advice on getting a diagnosis posted on 30th Dec. As outlined , fanciers should contact either their vet or their local District Veterinary Office ( DVO ) for a submit form for diagnostic work. DVO contact details for each state can be found on the internet by googling DPI and then the State. If you get stuck please feel free to ring our clinic on 03 9764 9000 and our nurses can help you
Several further lofts have been identified as infected with Reo virus over the last 24 hours. All are located in the north western suburbs of Melbourne.
Fanciers need to be responsible.
Although no official ruling is in place, fanciers whose lofts have been diagnosed with the disease or are suspicious that their birds are infected should out of consideration for others and the best interests of the sport, notify fanciers who live nearby and make every effort to avoid the further spread of the disease. I feel that this should include the confinement of their birds. It is not a fancier’s fault if he gets the disease but it is certainly his fault if he gets the disease, does not tell anyone and continues practices that contribute to the spread of the disease.
It was very strange when this virus first entered Victoria. We were the first clinic to be presented with cases. This occurred on Monday 12 th Dec. We had samples away for diagnosis and were speaking to the pathologists daily, the diagnostic process was proceeding as fast as it could and the earliest any results would be available was on the Friday. Yet on the Thursday I was c/c ed into a mass email stating that Adeno virus had been diagnosed in Melbourne. Obviously this was totally inaccurate but what bothers me the most is that someone was happy to send out this information when they had to know it was not true. Frustratingly, misinformation continues to be spread. It is very disappointing to see on the internet people attempting to profit from the outbreak. Various drugs and treatment plans are being advertised to stop deaths in 7 days (deaths stop around this time anyway, as a consequence of the virus coming to the end of its natural course) and to stimulate the immune system and thereby reduce deaths. Some have invented new names for this condition (which just confuses everybody) and have become overnight experts even though they may not have seen any affected birds, have not been involved in the diagnostic work and certainly have not had time to demonstrate treatments as being effective.
Fanciers should avoid theories and stick to evidence-based fact. What we do know is that when Reo virus enters a loft, birds develop a green diarrhoea and start to vomit. Once birds look sick they usually die within 12 to 24 hours. All birds in the loft become infected. After about 7 days, deaths stop. Mortality rates range from 15 to 40 %. Recovered birds carry the virus in their system and are infectious to other birds for about 10 months. As mentioned in earlier updates, the only treatment that to date appears to have some anecdotal benefit is to treat the birds as soon as any look sick with a course of an antibiotic such as Sulpha AVS. The level of care that the vast majority of racing pigeons receive is more than adequate to ensure that the immune system is functioning optimally and as the virus runs a natural course of about 7 days deaths will naturally stop then no matter what is given. My advice is not to be gullible and waste your money. Also I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the birds are not dying of secondary infections. We have autopsied and tested many birds now. It is the virus that is killing them and there is no direct treatment for the virus. The focus now should be on accurately diagnosing the problem in each loft where birds start to die, controlling the spread of the disease and developing a way to protect the birds through immunisation.
Progress .Vaccine development.
I have had discussions with two drug companies over the Xmas break. One has the ability to make an autogenous vaccine (ie vaccine made here from the Australian Reo) here in Australia. To do this however would require an APVMA permit and this may take months to obtain. The other cannot currently make a vaccine here but does have a combined PMV/ Reo vaccine registered for use in chickens overseas. It has not been trialled in pigeons. Because of the urgency of the situation a special permit could be obtained to import this vaccine This would take about 2 months which is probably quick enough to immunise the birds before racing but the difficulty is that the Reo virus in the overseas vaccine may not be sufficiently similar to the Australian Reo for cross immunity to occur. One of the ways to find out if cross immunity is likely to occur is to sequence the Reo here and see how much it matches the vaccine Reo. A lot of similarities would mean that the vaccine would be likely to work here. What is involved and how long will this take? Dr Grant Rawlin from AAHL explains
“Assuming this thing is new, Whole Genome Sequencing will realistically take weeks rather than days (but not months). One good thing we know now, is that there was lots of virus in the lesion preparation under EM. This should make the sequencing run a bit more smoothly. Whole Genome Sequencing essentially multiplies up every bit of DNA in the sample - then you match the huge result with databases of DNA sequences and work out anything that shows up that matches or is unusual. As you can imagine, if you have more of the target virus in a sample the signal is better and it stands out more”.
So how likely is it that there will be enough similarities for cross immunity to occur?
Dr Rawlin goes on to explain
“ There are about a dozen sero-types of reos in chickens, turkeys and geese and none of these cause disease pathology primarily in the liver ( which is what the Australian Reo does). The vaccine contains 3 serotypes of most importance to poultry only. ie the chances of a cross reaction is pretty slim.”
In the meantime viral cultures are being harvested today and samples are being sent for molecular work to continue the ID process. There are other overseas vaccines that could be evaluated for cross immunity very quickly once the genome of the Australian Reo is known. If we get a match these could be imported and used. Also there are other vaccine companies that may be able to make an autogenous vaccine that could be supplied under direct veterinary script to clients negating the need for an APVMA permit ( possibly ). I will continue to investigate. Over the Xmas break I have had Phil Lehrbach from Pfizer, Robin Anderson from Intervet, Prof Amir from Melbourne Uni , Dr Rawlin from AAHL, pathologists at AgriBio and Peter Scott of CCEAD all take the time to respond to emails and phone me giving their time and advice freely when most are in real holiday mode. I am most appreciative.
Extent of the Disease.
Cases have been confirmed in Victoria , NSW and South Australia. There was a suggestion that some birds had the disease in Cairns in QLD but these have been shown to have PMV. Similarly a suspect case in Lysterfield yesterday is still undiagnosed but has already shown not to be Reo. A suspect loft in Dromana from yesterday is still being investigated. So far we have about 25 confirmed cases in Victoria; the majority are in rural lofts. There have been further suspect cases throughout metro Melbourne but fanciers have failed to have diagnostic work done. Suspect cases have also been identified in Westminster in WA in high flying pigeons recently. I presume DAFWA is investigating.
Getting an accurate diagnosis of Reo - made easy by DEPI ( Department Of Environment and Primary Industry )
It is important to remember that every unwell pigeon over the next few months will not have Reo virus. Many other problems look similar and are quite common. It is imperative that fanciers seek an accurate diagnosis if their birds become unwell. AgriBio is making this easy for fanciers. The government is still offering free testing. Fanciers simply need to take unwell pigeons or freshly dead pigeons to AgriBio at the Latrobe University campus. The birds need to be accompanied by a submit form completed by a veterinarian. AgriBio has asked vets to be discerning and only fill in submit forms for cases that are consistent with a possible Reo virus infection. So, if you birds are unwell, contact your veterinarian, explain what is going on, if they feel your birds could have Reo, collect a submit form from them and take the birds to AgriBio. Even easier, if it is not possible for you to take the birds there, contact your local District Veterinary Officer ( DVO ) who may be able to collect the bird from you. The DVO can also provide the submit form. For all of this there is no charge. This is a great example of a special interest group and the DEPI working together to solve a problem. There is absolutely no reason not to get an accurate diagnosis of Reo. Of course if your veterinarian thinks that the problem is not a Reo infection then they will be able to diagnose the problem for you. In this situation you may or may not wish to proceed but if you do then normal charges will apply.
Should we just let the virus run its course and then we can all get on and race this year?
This approach makes no sense. If the virus behaves the same way as in WA this would result in the deaths of 15% - 40 % of the Australian pigeon population. As there are an estimated 500,000 racing pigeons in Australia and these represent about half of all pigeons this would result in the deaths of 150,000 to 400,000 pigeons. Recovered birds are not immune for life and so therefore can catch the disease again. Recovered birds also carry the virus in their system for many months and are infectious to further birds during this time. Birds cannot be ‘cleaned out’ with medication .This approach will not allow the problem to go away. There will always be vulnerable birds and ongoing outbreaks ( as we are seeing with PMV ). We need to develop a vaccine to give fanciers a way of protecting their birds. Very few fanciers (myself included), I believe, would be prepared to risk racing this year and potentially lose 15% to 40 % of all their birds if their birds had not been immunised.
I spoke to Agri Bio yesterday and the Electron Microscopy done at AAHL revealed large numbers of viral particles. Their appearance under the microscope is very suggestive of a Reo virus. The viral cultures are continuing and molecular techniques such as next generation gene sequencing are being organised to complete the viral ID process. It is probably not until the middle of the first week in January ( which is not that long ) until more information will be available. It is now only 10 days since our first cases in Victoria. Dr David Phalen of Sydney University, Dr Amir Noorohammadi of Melbourne University, the staff at AgriBio and AAHL and the office of Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Charles Milne, are all to be congratulated on the amazingly rapid progression of events
What is Reo Virus?
Reo viruses are widespread and are commonly found in many types of birds including chickens. In many cases it is hard to determine their importance . Sometimes they are there but appear not to be causing disease. Some Reo viruses however have been implicated in disease outbreaks. Reo viruses have been associated with disease in pigeons in Europe , China , South Africa and other countries. AgriBio are fairly confident that the virus they are seeing on the EM images is a Reo but have suggested that at the moment the diagnosis is only provisional. A definitive diagnosis will be made once the viral cultures and gene sequencing are complete. There are no Reo vaccines in Australia. There are however vaccines for similar viruses that may confer some cross immunity. We are seeking the advice of some vaccine specialists
Is the use of PMV vaccine in some way linked to the current problem?
The short answer is absolutely not. One of the principle aims of the 18 month PMV vaccine trial that was conducted in 2013 was to ensure that the suggested vaccine protocol did the pigeons no harm. None could be demonstrated. The test results passed the rigorous standards of the APVMA enabling Pfizer to register the vaccine for use in pigeons. The trial was also published in the prestigious peer reviewed Australian Veterinary Journal. These ultimate authorities were happy with the conclusions that the suggested protocol was not harmful to pigeons and conferred strong immunity. The killed La Sota based vaccine used in Australia is used in many counties around the world including the UK and USA.
How are we going to make the birds immune ?
Now that we appear to have a diagnosis we need to figure out a way of developing an immunity to Reo in Australian pigeons so that racing and showing can occur this year. When a new disease gets into a naïve population the effect of that disease can be fairly dramatic . As time goes by the population will start to build up an immunity and the signs associated with the disease will become more vague and less severe. It is likely therefore that the impact of Reo will be greatest in the next 2 – 3 years. It will always be with us but it is likely that its effect will be less in the future
I have today spoken to Dr Chris Morrow of Bioproperties and Dr Peter Scott of Scolexia and the CCEAD ( Consultative Committee of Emergency Animal Disease ).
A number of points have been raised
1/ There are no Reo vaccines available in Australia. A disease called Infectious Bursal Disease in chickens is caused by a different virus but one that does share some similar surface proteins. Despite this, it is thought that no cross immunity would develop if this vaccine was used in pigeons
2/Reo vaccines are available overseas. These could be imported under permit. It is thought unlikely however that these would confer protective immunity in Australian pigeons
3/ A Reo vaccine could be made in Australia. This is possible and has the advantage that it would be made from the strain of Reo virus that is here. This is currently our best option. I have 2 companies in mind and will speak to each of them the first day that they reopen after the Xmas break
4/ Interferon development - interferon is a substance produced by the body either in response to viral infection or vaccination. Once produced interferon can help to protect the body against other viruses for a short time, usually about 2 weeks. It may be that vaccinating with a live vaccine, for example PMV ND4 in the face of an outbreak will reduce the severity of the disease and deaths caused by Reo virus. This may also occur after Salmonella vaccination, but it is thought that immune mediators such as interferon produced after vaccination for a bacterial disease may not be as effective as that produced after vaccination against a viral disease in this situation. Two WA fanciers who had recently vaccinated against Salmonella did however have much lower death rates in their birds than other fanciers
5/ As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the ability of some viruses to penetrate the bowel, enter the body and cause disease is affected by the population of bowel bacteria. There is anecdotal evidence that treating birds at the start of an outbreak with antibiotics may reduce the number of deaths
What to do if you think the virus has entered your loft
In the longer term the answer will be to make sure that your birds are vaccinated against Reo and don’t get sick in the first place but in the mean time
1/Start a course of Sulpha AVS (or another brand of trimethoprim/ sulphadiazine ) 3 grams to 4 L of water or enrofloxacin (eg “Baytril “ or “Enrotril “ 5 – 10 ml per L for 5 days ( at least )
2 /Consider vaccination with NDV 4 or Bioproperties Salmonella Vaccine
3/ Practice general good care ( as most of us do all the time anyway ) ie good hygiene, nutritious diet, no overcrowding particularly of babies, good parasite control, treat any diagnosed ( ie identified through accurate testing ) concurrent health problems in the loft. The aim here is simply to get the birds as healthy as we can so that they are best able to resist the virus. There is no need for dietary and other supplements if the above criteria are met.
Virus identification procedures are continuing. As one can imagine I am receiving quite a few phone calls. At one stage yesterday I got 36 phone calls in 2 1/2 hours. I have answered some of the common questions below. This site will continue to be updated daily
Are recovered birds immune?
It is likely that recovered birds are immune for a period of time, probably months. We don’t know exactly how long this time will be. Only testing will tell us. It really depends on what type of virus we are dealing with. For example, birds that have recovered from Pox virus are immune for life while we know from testing done during the initial PMV outbreak done in 2012 that in birds that have had PMV , after 12 months 10% are vulnerable to re infection. The number rises steadily with each month. This is why birds need annual PMV vaccinations.
Is it worthwhile treating birds with this virus with drugs such as antibiotics?
The virus causes massive liver damage and the birds die principally of liver failure due to this. We have not identified any birds that have died of secondary infections. This means that there is no advantage in randomly giving the birds antibiotics. However there are some viruses whose absorption into the body is affected by the population of bowel bacteria . It may be that giving antibiotics strategically at the start of an outbreak reduces viral absorption and therefore reduces deaths. Fanciers should speak to their veterinarian to see what antibiotics may be suitable in this situation. It is early days but as further results become available it may be that measures such as vaccination against Salmonella may have longer term benefits in protecting the birds against viral invasion. Giving birds things like eucalyptus oil and “Pine O Clean “ are of no benefit.
What happens when the virus gets into a loft?
Typically nothing happens for a period of about 5 days. Some birds then start to vomit, develop green diarrhoea and a hunched posture. Sick birds die usually within 12 to 24 hours. All birds that become sick die. All birds in the loft become infected with the virus. Deaths continue for about 7 days. Between 15 and 45% of birds die. If you have unwell birds in your loft and are seeing a different pattern of disease then it is likely that you have another problem in your loft. Other viral diseases such as Circo, Adeno, PMV and Herpes as well as other diseases such as Chlamydia can look similar
Can the disease be treated?
There is no treatment for the virus. Many things however can appear to work. Any treatment given several days into an outbreak can appear to ‘cure’ the disease. In fact, the virus runs a natural course of about 7 days and deaths will stop naturally around this time
Are recovered birds cured?
No, all birds in the loft are infected. Birds that survive the outbreak may look completely normal but in fact are carrying the virus in their systems and can infect other pigeons. Long term testing will identify how long recovered birds act as carriers. This depends on the type of virus. For example we know that with PMV, birds act as carriers for 60 days, with Herpes it is lifelong and with Circo it is about 4 to 6 months. With this virus it appears that the carrier state ( and therefore the time that recovered birds are infectious to others ) is between 5 and 10 months
How long before we know what type of virus is causing the disease ie the virus is identified ?
The first cases in Victoria were 10 days ago. Initial autopsy and histopathology results were available in 4 days. Virus identification procedures started the same day ie 6 days ago. Virus identification results could be available as early as the next few days. It is unlikely that it will be more than 4 weeks. Virus typing is absolutely critical. Once we can identify the virus then we can predict how it is likely to behave . In turn this enables us to make the correct decisions about its control
What is the plan to bring this disease under control?
PLAN and AIMS
Control of spread of virus—strict biosecurity, no inter-loft movement of bird or fanciers
Completion of ID virus
Develop tentative immune protocol to offer fanciers some means of protecting their birds ASAP
Long term trial to develop “best “ and proven method of protecting birds
I had a teleconference yesterday evening with the National Pigeon Racing Board with Stephen Eggleton. Greg Kakoschke,, Mark Jeffrey, Peter Wallace, Grant Paterson, Ken Wilson and Len Van der Linden in attendance. The outbreak was discussed generally. In particular the possible need for funding for further diagnostics and immunology trials was discussed. I spoke to DAFWA ( The Dept of Agriculture and Forestry WA ) yesterday. They are releasing a report on their investigation of the outbreak in WA in the new year. Meanwhile in Victoria viral diagnostics continue. AgriBio received birds from several more affected country lofts through regional District Veterinary Officers yesterday. All birds are very consistent with the same symptoms, gross autopsy changes and histopathology . Viral cultures in embryonated eggs are still in progress. Depending on the virus, results could be available as early as next week but could take up to 4 weeks. Samples have been sent to AAHL for electron microscopy. AgriBio and AAHL do not close for Xmas and I will speak to the duty pathologist daily. I will be speaking on Pigeon Radio on Monday at 7.10 Pm if anyone would like to tune in or has questions for me.
Stephen Kearsey and I had a meeting yesterday with Victoria’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Charles Milne. All aspects of the current outbreaks were discussed. Dr Milne is well aware of the severity of the problem and the need for rapid diagnosis. It was agreed that the top priority is the rapid diagnosis of the condition. I have also had correspondence with Dr Grant Rawlin at AAHL. Diagnostic work continues at AgriBio with viral cultures in embryonated eggs, histopathology and possible EM. There is a report that PIRSA has also forwarded to AAHL samples from an infected loft in Port Augusta. We also have reports of infected lofts in Dandenong overnight.
Further birds may be needed for diagnosis. Fanciers who think that their birds may be infected should contact me directly 0412481239.
The four presidents and secretaries of the four racing federations, myself and Stephen Kearsey met at the VHA headquarters in Notting Hill today. The Fed representatives were updated about the current outbreak situation. The outbreak was discussed generally as well as the best way to address the problem in a combined way.
A readily transmissible viral disease was identified in racing pigeons in Victoria last week. Affected lofts experience mortality rates of approximately 30 %. Initial testing has ruled out Adeno, PMV and Herpes virus infections. The virus is likely, however, to be the same virus that affected WA racing lofts earlier this year. Testing has identified a number of virus’ as possible causes with one in particular being most likely. It may be that some poultry vaccines will be able to protect pigeons. Diagnostic work continues. In the meantime every effort should be made to avoid the movement of birds between lofts. Some fanciers may wish to keep their birds locked down. Similarly flyers should avoid visiting other lofts. Further information will be posted as soon as it is available. Affected birds develop green diarrhoea, start to vomit , become hunched and usually die within 24 hours.
Please note that there has not been a recent outbreak of Adeno virus in Victoria. Adeno virus has not recently been diagnosed in Victoria despite extensive testing and the virus is not associated with the current disease outbreak in Victoria. Adeno virus is also not the virus that caused the outbreak of disease in WA 6 months ago. The messages being spread on the internet and causing fanciers concern are inaccurate and are essentially just gossip
A diagnosis of Adeno virus Type 2 is not a remarkable event in Victoria. Along with the other common viruses in pigeons it is periodically diagnosed, usually about 4 times per year. It is a disease that affects adult pigeons, is hard to transmit and has a low mortality rate. The usual method of diagnosis is examination of tissues microscopically. There is no specific treatment . Treatment is supportive only
It is understandable that fanciers are confused about Adeno virus involvement in this outbreak with everything that has been appearing on the internet. The bogus ‘diagnosis’ of Adeno virus has however had 3 immediate consequences:
1, it has stalled, confused and delayed the diagnostic process
2, it has led to decisions being made that have resulted in WA fanciers inadvertently sending out birds that are still infectious. These have spread the virus out of WA
3,it has to date robbed WA fanciers of developing real ways to protect their birds from the virus.
WA was notified in July that early Victorian testing by the University of Melbourne had indicated that the virus causing the problem was not Adeno virus.
Fanciers should be mindful that much on the internet is unproven and incorrect.