The US is considering mass vaccination of poultry birds against Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) as the death toll from the disease pushes toward 60 million. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says it has already begun testing potential vaccines and is in discussions with industry leaders. Historically, such a move has met fierce opposition due to the threat it poses to the $6 billion US poultry export business.
The current HPAI outbreak, which has been ongoing since the beginning of 2020, has impacted poultry across 47 US states and over 60 other countries, leading to the death of over 200 million birds world wide. Outbreaks have also widened this year to corners that have previously avoided HPAI, including South America.
Not only has the disease led to massive losses for farmers, it’s also behind skyrocketing prices for eggs and other consumer poultry products across the globe. This comes as the US and many other countries continue to battle stubborn inflation, to which food prices have been a major contributor. Beyond the threat that HPAI poses to birds, industry, and economies, there are also concerns about the risk to human health as the disease has spread to a growing number of mammals.
Experts say HPAI is now endemic in wild birds that spread the disease across migratory flyways and warn that it may now be a year-round and permanent threat. A growing number of countries are turning to or considering vaccinations. Mexico authorized vaccinations earlier this year and the 27 countries in the EU are set to begin a vaccine campaign in May. Several countries in South America, where bird flu was only recently confirmed, have already begun or are considering vaccination.
Standards set by the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) do allow the use of bird flu vaccines with no trade restrictions so long as vaccinated flocks aren’t infected with the virus. And that is at the heart of one of the biggest objections to vaccine usage in the US – it becomes more difficult to determine whether birds have been infected. Which means potential bans on US poultry exports as trade partners may not want to run the risk of importing the disease.
The National Chicken Council, which represents the broiler industry, opposes vaccination. Tom Super, the council’s senior vice president for communications, said that losing the ability to export chicken would cost the industry “billions and billions of dollars.” In contrast, the National Turkey Federation supports the use of vaccines, though its worth noting that the industry exports just 9% of its meat versus 18% for the broiler industry. The group’s president, Joel Brandenberger, says they have urged the US government “to move as rapidly as possible to try to develop new agreements” with trading partners.
The industries also worries about the cost for the shots as well as labor involved in carrying out a mass vaccination campaign. The US produces more than nine billion chickens a year just for meat. Dr. Carol Cardona, an expert on avian health at the University of Minnesota, says it could take large egg-laying operations, which could contain five million birds, two years to vaccinate enough birds to achieve high levels of population immunity.
For now, the Biden Administration says it is focused on “promoting and enhancing high-impact biosafety practices and procedures.” While vaccination is not publicly being promoted as a solution, the USDA says it is continuing to research vaccine options. The agency also acknowledges that there are many factors that make implementing a vaccine strategy a challenge, “and it would take time to deliver an effective vaccine.” (Source: USDA, Reuters, WattAgNet, Scientific American)