UPDATED: USDA powwows with Zoetis as government plans poultry vaccine against avian influenza

Scientists at the USDA are developing a vaccine in response to the recent outbreak of avian influenza--and they're conferring with animal health giant Zoetis ($ZTS) in the process. The move comes as the flu strains H5N8 and H5N2 continue to be reported in poultry plants and backyard flocks in 8 states, prompting some buyers overseas to limit imports.

The USDA plans to test a vaccine in chickens within the next two months, according to Reuters. A spokesperson for Zoetis, which markets a vaccine overseas, told FierceAnimalHealth in an e-mail that it has been monitoring the U.S. outbreak and is in contact with the USDA about the virus. But it appears the agency has embarked on its own development program.

The government has not yet formulated a plan to distribute the vaccine, and for now it will continue to cull infected birds and test others to control the outbreak, according to Reuters. T.J. Myers, associate deputy director of surveillance, preparedness, and response services for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told Reuters the vaccine is being developed as a countermeasure to containment. Because wild birds can carry avian influenza, "there's really no way to predict where the next case might be," Myers said.

Myers added that the USDA considers vaccinating all poultry across the country to be neither practical nor necessary.

That said, the virus continues to spread panic around the world, with outright bans on U.S. poultry instituted by South Korea and China, and limits imposed by other countries on imports from Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, California, Washington and Oregon. And the Kansas Department of Agriculture recently implemented limits on the movement of poultry in counties that border Missouri after avian influenza was discovered in that state.

Zoetis markets a 10-minute test called FluDetect, and it has a vaccine approved for avian flu in Egypt, Jordan and Vietnam. "The circumstances for disease control vary by market and we abide by those regulations," the spokesperson says. "We will continue to monitor the situation and stand ready to support our poultry customers." 

Just how involved Zoetis will become in fighting this latest outbreak of avian influenza remains to be seen. But the company is clearly stepping up its efforts to combat emerging animal diseases that threaten human health. Last October, Zoetis set up a European research center staffed by veterinarians and scientists who are working together to sequence the genomes of new pathogens and develop diagnostic and preventive tools. Avian influenza is one of the threats the center's leaders have said they are interested in pursuing ways to manage.

- here's the Reuters story

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include input from Zoetis.