Clean-up of 30-tons of crane carcasses is still underway in northern Israel after over 5,000 cranes were found dead earlier this week around the Hula Lake nature reserve in the fatal spread of avian flu that has been ravaging the bird population in the region.
An outbreak of the H5N1 virus, a highly pathogenic and highly contagious avian influenza occurring mainly in birds and especially deadly for poultry, was first found in chicken coops at Moshav Margaliot last weekend on the Lebanese border. As a result, 320,000 hens were forced to be killed, after 244,000 hens had already been put down in the moshav.
Israeli authorities have warned that a shortage of some 14 million eggs a month is expected in the coming weeks.
The outbreak is also dangerous because human transmission is possible. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met his national security advisor and other experts to discuss efforts to prevent passing it to humans, though so far “no human transmission has been reported,” Bennett’s office said, according to Reuters.
This is not the first time avian flu has made an appearance in Israel. But the high number of poultry death in the past few days has prompted Israel’s Environmental Minister Tamar Zandberg to tweet (in Hebrew) that this is “the most serious damage to wildlife in the history of the country.”
One Israeli biotech startup is working with gene editing tools to modify DNA fragments in chickens in order to make them resistant to avian flu.
“We are strategically focusing on using gene editing tools in order to optimize the health and animal welfare of livestock, starting with chickens, but also exploring other animals. As long as people still consume proteins, which are animal-based, we want to make the lives of those animals healthier and elevate their welfare,” Yehuda Elram, CEO and co-founder of biotech firm eggXYt, tells NoCamels.
Founded in 2016 by Elram and Daniel Offen, eggXYt became known for its use of the Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR technology to develop its own tech that detects the sex of chick embryos immediately after eggs are laid and before they enter the 21-day incubation period. The goal was to save some four billion male chickens in the egg layer industry currently culled each year because they can’t lay eggs and it’s not economical to raise them for meat.
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EggXYt later decided it wanted to expand its poultry portfolio into the field of animal health. In November 2020, the company licensed the GEiGS (Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing) technology platform from agricultural- biotechnology firm Tropic Biosciences for a unique project to develop resistance against avian flu in chickens.
“Early on, we realized that this amazing gene-editing tool can fix problems having to do with animal health.,” Elram says, “Strategically if we can make animals healthier and more resistant to viruses, that’s an amazing cause and probably wider and more applicable. Being in the area of chicken genetics, it is only obvious that we would look for the hurtful pain point in the health of chickens and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out that avian influenza is a global pandemic that hits every year,” he explains, “The numbers are outrageous of how many chickens you need to kill because they just happen to be in the neighborhood.”
Dr. Caroline Noach, DVM, Ph.D leads the Animal Health unit at eggXYt, which was established in early 2021 to kick off R&D with Tropic Biosciences She explains the company’s gene editing process to NoCamels.
“The virus is hijacking the machinery of the cells. So we want to push the virus back,” Dr. Noach explains. “There are all kinds of RNA molecules in the cells that are regulating the gene expression. We want to use the RNA molecules to actually reduce or silence the viral replication in the cell.”
EggXYt uses the tool to target very conserved areas of the virus. “We want to target those areas because they would provide protection against the flu across the board,” says Dr. Noach. “We also use the cell’s natural processes to target those conserved areas and silence the replication of the virus.”
The UK-based firm Tropic Biosciences initially developed GEiGS tech to support the development of its own tropical crops, such as banana plants that are resistant to Panama disease, a devastating fungal disease that is threatening production globally. The company later recognize the wider potential of GEiGS beyond tropical crops and has made the tech platform commercially available to other innovative companies and world leaders in the crop and livestock breeding industries.
The outbreak of the highly pathogenic bird flu occurs at least once a year throughout regions in Europe and Asia. In November, several outbreaks of severe bird flu in these areas were reported to the World Organization for Animal Health, according to the British daily newspaper The Guardian.
Avian Influenza virus is one of the deadliest and most costly avian diseases. A 2015 outbreak in the US, for example, led to the slaughter of 50 million poultry and is estimated to have had an economic cost of $3.2 billion.