Spatiotemporal reconstruction and transmission dynamics during the 2016-17 H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza epidemic in Italy

Harvey WT, Mulatti P, Fusaro A, Scolamacchia F, Zecchin B, Monne I, Marangon S (2019) Transboundary and Emerging Diseases 68, 37-50 DOI 10.1111/tbed.13420 PDF

Effective control of avian diseases in domestic populations requires understanding of the transmission dynamics facilitating viral emergence and spread. In 2016-17, Italy experienced a significant avian influenza epidemic caused by a highly pathogenic A(H5N8) virus, which affected domestic premises housing around 2.7 million birds, primarily in the north-eastern regions with the highest density of poultry farms (Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto). We perform integrated analyses of genetic, spatiotemporal and host data within a Bayesian phylogenetic framework. Using continuous and discrete phylogeography, we estimate the locations of movements responsible for the spread and persistence of the epidemic. The information derived from these analyses on rates of transmission between regions through time can be used to assess the success of control measures. Using an approach based on phylogenetic-temporal distances between domestic cases, we infer the presence of cryptic wild bird-mediated transmission, information that can be used to complement existing epidemiological methods for distinguishing transmission within the domestic population from incursions across the wildlife-domestic interface, a common challenge in veterinary epidemiology. Spatiotemporal reconstruction of the epidemic reveals a highly skewed distribution of virus movements with a high proportion of shorter distance local movements interspersed with occasional long-distance dispersal events associated with wild birds. We also show how such inference be used to identify possible instances of human-mediated movements where distances between phylogenetically linked domestic cases are unusually high.