Thursday, September 21, 2023

Is the U.S. considering vaccine in the fight against avian influenza?

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WASHINGTON — The effects of the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) that has been occurring in the U.S. since January 2022, has been felt commercially in the loss of chickens and turkeys, as well as its now well-known impact on the egg layer flock that has resulted in historically high egg prices.

For total numbers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that HPAI has affected more than 58,643,000 birds in 47 states, encompassing 805 outbreaks in 401 counties. These affected birds include commercial poultry, wild aquatic birds, backyard, and hobby flocks.

There have been discussions lately in the media and the government about the possibility of using an avian influenza vaccine to control the spread of the disease.

But is this the best course of action?

A main concern over the use of vaccine in treating avian influenza is how this will affect international trade.

In response to a recent report in the New York Times, the National Chicken Council said, “Currently, the National Chicken Council does not support the use of a vaccine for HPAI for a variety of reasons — the primary one being trade. Most countries, including the U.S., do not recognize countries that vaccinate as free of HPAI due to concerns that vaccines can mask the presence of the disease. Therefore, they do not accept exports from countries that do vaccinate.”

NCC added that the U.S. has chicken meat exports that are valued at more than $5 billion annually, and export about 18 percent of production.

“If we start vaccinating for HPAI in the U.S., the broiler industry will lose our ability to export which will have a significant impact on the industry — while costing billions and billions of dollars to the U.S. economy every year,” NCC’s response added. “These export losses would also have a devastating impact on thousands of family farmers who raise the birds. Even if one sector (eggs, turkeys) moves forward with a vaccine, the broiler industry will be impacted as our trading partners view all poultry (egg layers, turkeys, broilers, ducks, etc.) the same.”

The council also noted that, “During the current outbreak, of the birds affected, about 76 percent have been commercial egg-laying hens, 17 percent turkeys and only about 5 percent broilers and broiler breeders (meat chickens). The rest have been ducks, backyard chicken and game birds. So the U.S. poultry sector that least needs a vaccine would have the most to risk from using one.”

It’s also noted that there is not currently a vaccine available for use in poultry against HPAI.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a recent discussion with the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that even though there may be some vaccines in development, one is not currently ready for use.

“At the present time there is no vaccine for the current strain of HPAI virus,” Vilsack said. “There are a number of vaccines that are in the process of being developed. This is a long way to go … before we can say we have a vaccine. Then there’s the additional steps that have to be taken in order to determine the impact and effect of a vaccine on the ability to sell product overseas … we’re a long way away from having a vaccine that is effective and a long way from having a vaccine that the rest of the world accepts.”

There have also been some recent media reports about the USDA Agricultural Research Service and potential upcoming trails for a vaccine.

Tom Super, NCC’s senior vice president of communications, in response to these potential trails, said, “… a vaccine will not eliminate the virus. Birds can still get HPAI and may not show signs of having the virus which allows the virus to replicate and spread (known as masking).”

“We support ongoing discussions about a vaccination program, but currently we support the eradication policy of APHIS (USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and believe that right now this is the best approach to eliminating HPAI in the U.S.,” Super added.

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