USDA speeds development of bird flu vaccine as fears of revived virus mount

Courtesy of Tim Simos, National Wild Turkey Federation

The H5N2 virus that has wiped out 48 million chickens and turkeys has waned of late, thanks to warm temperatures, but scientists are worried that the virus will return in the fall, as migrating wild birds fly south for the winter. So the USDA is working hard to test a vaccine, license it for mass production, and stockpile it around the country.

That was the message from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke before the House Agriculture Committee on July 22. Scientists have already developed a vaccine and tested it in chickens, where it has proven to be 100% effective, said Vilsack, according to a report by the Associated Press. Testing is currently underway in turkeys, he added.

Still, not everyone is convinced a mass vaccination program is a good idea. James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, told the AP that a vaccination program could impede international trade. Many countries refuse meat from countries that vaccinate because they can't determine through testing whether the birds had been infected with the virus or if they had received the vaccine, Sumner said.

Vilsack told House members the vaccine is part of a multifaceted plan that will be followed should the virus spike in the fall--a plan that will include biosecurity, depopulation, and repopulation, if necessary, according to Farm Futures. "We are planning for a circumstance where we're simultaneously having to deal with 500 outbreaks," Vilsack said, according to the publication. "We think that's sort of a worst case scenario situation."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Meanwhile, some egg producers are resorting to extreme measures to protect their flocks. The day after an outbreak was reported in Des Moines, IA, the president of Murray McMurray Hatchery there packed up 3,500 baby chicks and drove them to Texas to try to keep them safe, according to a Reuters story. Some producers are sending their most valuable egg-laying breeding chickens as far away as Brazil.

That's no surprise, considering how destructive the virus has been to the egg industry. In June, the USDA predicted egg production will drop 5% this year to 6.9 billion dozen. By late May, the price for a dozen large eggs produced in the Midwest had skyrocketed 120% in a month to $2.62.

Vilsack did not provide any details about how the avian flu vaccine will be produced, except to say it will be licensed out to a company that has the necessary manufacturing capacity, according to Farm Futures. The agency has scheduled an event in Iowa this week to discuss its plans for controlling future avian flu outbreaks with members of the poultry industry.

- here's the AP story
- read more at Reuters
- access the Farm Futures report here