Unravelling direct and indirect contact patterns between duck farms in France and their association with the 2016-2017 epidemic of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N8)

Live animal movements generate direct contacts (via the exchange of live animals) and indirect contacts (via the transit of transport vehicles) between farms, which can contribute to the spread of pathogens. However, most analyses focus solely on direct contacts and can therefore underestimate the contribution of live animal movements in the spread of infectious diseases. Here, we used French live duck movement data (2016-2018) from one of the largest transport companies to compare direct and indirect contact patterns between duck farms and evaluate how these patterns were associated with the French 2016-2017 epidemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N8. A total number of 614 farms were included in the study, and two directed networks were generated: the animal introduction network (exchange of live ducks) and the transit network (transit of transport vehicles). Following descriptive analyses, these two networks were scrutinized in relation to farm infection status during the epidemic. Results showed that farms were substantially more connected in the transit network than in the animal introduction network and that the transit of transport vehicles generated more opportunities for transmission than the exchange of live animals. We also showed that animal introduction and transit networks´ statistics decreased substantially during the epidemic (January-March 2017) compared to non-epidemic periods (January-March 2016 and January-March 2018). We estimated a probability of 33.3 % that a farm exposed to the infection through either of the two live duck movement networks (i.e. that was in direct or indirect contact with a farm that was reported as infected in the following seven days) becomes infected within seven days after the contact. However, we also demonstrated that the level of exposure of farms by these two contact patterns was low, leading only to a handful of transmission events through these routes. As a consequence, we showed that live animal movement patterns are efficient transmission routes for HPAI but have been efficiently reduced to limit the spread during the French 2020-2021 epidemic. These results underpin the relevance of studying indirect contacts resulting from the movement of animals to understand their transmission potential and the importance of accounting for both routes when designing disease control strategies.