The prospect of vaccinating against the spread of highly-pathogenic avian influenza has divided the nation's poultry industry groups as the Biden administration moves forward with plans to conduct vaccination trials this month. 

Industry groups weighed in on the issue in the wake of a New York Times story last week quoting avian influenza experts who said the administration should “move ahead” with vaccination of poultry, “in part to reduce the risk of a human pandemic,” according to the Times. “In interviews, several called for the administration to act quickly.”

The article  cited concerns in the White House about egg prices, which have increased about 55% over the past year but have now begun to fall. Tuesday's Consumer Price Index data showed prices dropped 6.7% last month after an 8.5% January increase.

Now, USDA tells Agri-Pulse that the Agricultural Research Service will be testing four vaccine candidates. Trials are starting this month and are expected to produce results by June. The department plans to continue existing efforts to bolster biosecurity, calling it “the best and most prudent approach we have to mitigate the impact of the disease today,” 

“Should the trials be successful, and should USDA elect to continue development, the next step is identifying manufacturers interested in vaccine production. Once one or more manufacturers are identified there are 20 discrete stages to complete before vaccine delivery,” USDA said.

“These stages begin with feasibility work by the manufacturer and culminates with product label submission and review,” the department said. “General timeframes are 2.5-3 years, (but) in emergency situations manufacturers may expedite development, resulting in a shortened timeframe to licensure.” 

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement to Agri-Pulse that NSC efforts are currently “focused on promoting and enhancing high-impact biosafety practices and procedures.”

“There are a range of options the United States regularly considers when there is any outbreak that could affect the security and safety of the United States’ food supply,” the spokesperson noted.

Industry groups took different stances or no position at all on whether flocks should be vaccinated.

The National Chicken Council, which represents the U.S. broiler chicken industry, has opposed the idea. Broiler chickens comprise about 5% of the current outbreak, and NCC cited trade concerns in its opposition.

“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 spokesman Tom Super said.

Tom SuperTom Super, National Chicken Council“If we start vaccinating for HPAI in the U.S., the broiler industry will lose our ability to export chicken and chicken parts which will have a significant impact on the industry — costing billions and billions of dollars every year.”

The USA Poultry and Egg Export Council called the HPAI vaccine issue “very complex.”

“The benefits of vaccine use can reduce the number of cases but will not present 100% protection against infection with the virus,” USAPEEC said. “Vaccinated birds that become infected, can still shed the virus and while it is reduced it can still be present.”

Vaccination also would increase exponentially the costs for governmental agencies and the industry, USAPEEC warned. In addition, “vaccinated flocks that become infected would still be depopulated as they are today.” 

National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger, however, said NTF supports the effort. 

“We understand that the U.S. can't do anything unilaterally on this,” he said. “It has to be done in conjunction with our trading partners.”

“The goal is not to vaccinate indefinitely as a measure of control, but the goal is to end the outbreak,” he said.

Turkey production has accounted for nearly 17% of the confirmed HPAI detections in the current outbreak.

Other groups took different tacks on the issue. John Starkey, president of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, said while “vaccinations are certainly a topic of discussion amongst the many stakeholders in the poultry industry, we currently do not have a position on implementing a vaccination program.”

The vast majority — nearly 75% — of the current HPAI outbreak has impacted the nation's egg layer industry. The United Egg Producers said it "appreciates the continued discussion about avian influenza taking place in close collaboration with USDA, national poultry industry leaders and regulatory authorities, especially as it relates to the complexities around the science, feasibility, and the potential trade implications of HPAI vaccines.”

joel-brandenberger-300.jpgJoel Brandenberger, National Turkey Federation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the public health threat from HPAI is low. 

“Seven sporadic human cases associated with poultry exposures during this outbreak of contemporary HPAI A (H5N1) viruses have been reported globally since January 2022, one of which was identified in the United States,” CDC said in a Q&A on the agency’s website with Tim Uyeki, chief medical officer of CDC’s Influenza Division.

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The paper recommending rapid action by the administration said that, “there has been increased spillover to mammals, including an outbreak at a mink farm in Spain that was highly suggestive of sustained mammal to mammal transmission. Possible mink to mink transmission suggests that sustained outbreaks in mammalian populations may occur although minks may be more susceptible than other mammalian species to avian influenza viruses.”

Uyeki said, however, CDC and other partner agencies have characterized the H5N1 viruses from farmed mink detected in Spain and have not found any indications that would point to increased ability to infect humans.”

The Times story cited a report warning that “while few cases in humans have been detected, the widespread infection of animals throughout the world could lead to the evolution of a strain capable of sustained human to human transmission.” 

That report, which was shared with the newspaper, recommended the administration take action, “before a potential national biological emergency … to proactively ensure that the facilities it relies on to manufacture influenza vaccines would be able to deliver at their maximum estimated capacity in the event of an influenza pandemic.”

That, however, would be a tall order, as 650 million human doses would be required, the report said.

The report was by two authors, including an adviser to Global Health Strategies, a company with offices in five continents that “leverages communications and advocacy to help organizations bring comprehensive change to international health and development.” GHS says its client base includes “philanthropies, industry, multinational organizations, NGOs and governments.” The other author is with a nonprofit, Partners in Health.

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