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Bird Flu Vaccine Coming But Questions Remain

Virus Illustration

Just hearing the words “bird flu” can send chills down a farmland owner’s back like a January morning in Grand Forks. But this month they heard a welcome word: “vaccine.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has tormented producers since the USDA first confirmed its arrival in the United States in early 2022. The virus can race through chickens and turkeys with little mercy. Geese, swans, and ducks often serve as the unwitting virus spreaders.

The World Organization for Animal Health provides this explanation on the virus’ spread:

“In birds, avian influenza viruses are shed in the feces and respiratory secretions. They can all be spread through direct contact with secretions from infected birds, especially through feces or through contaminated feed and water. Because of the resistant nature of avian influenza viruses, including their ability to survive for long periods when temperatures are low, they can also be carried on farm equipment and spread easily from farm to farm.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the impact of these past two years. The CDC tracked avian flu outbreaks across 47 states with more than 81 million U.S. poultry and aquatic birds killed.

The CDC has also confirmed outbreaks in 18 flocks across the United States over the past 30 days. That includes seven commercial and 11 backyard flocks, which has impacted about 270,000 birds.

California, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maine are included on the CDC’s impacted states.

There is potential help for the impatient. However, the wait until that help arrives will require more patience.

"We are probably 18 months or so away from being able to identify a vaccine that would be effective for this particular (avian flu) that we’re dealing with now," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the U.S. House Agriculture Committee on February 14th.

Creating a vaccine means progress. But Vilsack added how challenging it is to create a vaccine that keeps up with a virus that changes.

“The problem is, of course, it mutates. So, you have to create ultimately a vaccine that is available for all strains. So, there’s that issue,” Vilsack warned.

But that is just one of the issues Vilsack laid out for the members of Congress around him. This is avian flu, not the traditional influenza against which Americans just stop by their doctor’s office to get inoculated.

So even after researchers develop the virus that can be effective for multiple strains of bird flu, someone must figure out how to administer it to the birds at risk. A lot of birds.

“The second issue is, how do you deliver the vaccine? Do you deliver it in a way that is efficient and effective and less expensive or is an injection required?” Vilsack said. “When you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of birds, that’s difficult. So, we’re trying to develop the process for distributing the vaccine.”

That process also includes how to determine which birds have already been vaccinated.

“Then the other issue is whether or not you can get to a point whereby vaccinating you can distinguish between a bird that has been vaccinated versus a bird that’s actually sick. We’re working on that,” he said.

And even after overcoming all those challenges, there will be yet another obstacle. Will other countries be willing to accept U.S. birds that have been vaccinated?

The World Organization for Animal Health did a global survey in May that showed just one in four of its member nations would accept imported poultry vaccinated against avian flu. But in December the organization cited more than 500 million birds lost to avian flu worldwide and stressed the need for countries to consider the merits of vaccinated birds.

It pointed out the evolving nature of the virus.

  • Losing its seasonal nature.

  • Circulating in wild birds.

  • Spreading to new species and posing a risk to humans.

Because of that confluence of factors, the World Organization for Animal Health declared that “all available science-based disease control tools must be considered.”

That includes vaccinations. “In certain epidemiological contexts, vaccination can be an effective complement to other control strategies. If properly implemented, vaccination should not be a barrier to safe trade. Wider use of vaccination stimulates research innovation, improving the health of available vaccines,” the organization stated.

Not everyone trusts new vaccines, regardless of whether it’s for humans or for poultry.

“We’ve got work to do,” Vilsack said.

But he added this shot of optimism. “There’s a commitment to get it done.”


American Farmland Owner Hayfields mountains


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