USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is approving the emergency use of a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) vaccine to prevent further deaths of the critically endangered California condor.

According to a statement from APHIS, the Fish and Wildlife Service approached APHIS about vaccination after a California condor was found dead in late March and then confirmed positive for HPAI at APHIS’ National Veterinary Services Laboratories.

The Peregrine Fund, which manages the condor flock in Arizona and Utah, said it first spotted a bird showing signs of illness March 9. Eleven days later, the group said it “collected a deceased female below her nest.” The bird was the first condor confirmed to be positive for HPAI.

“As of April 17, 2023, 20 condors have died in the Arizona-Utah flock, and HPAI has been confirmed for 10 of those condors,” the Peregrine Fund reported on its website. “Eight additional birds have been brought in for supportive care. Four of those condors died shortly after and are included in the total of 20 diseased birds. Four condors are still receiving supportive care and are seeing improvement.”

The vaccine has not been tested in the condor species. Beginning this month, APHIS said FWS will be conducting a pilot safety study in North American vultures, a similar species, to investigate the efficacy and safety of the vaccine in the endangered condors. That study will take place in North Carolina.

APHIS said it “approved this emergency vaccination of the condors because these birds are critically endangered, closely monitored, and their population is very small (less than 600), which allows close monitoring of the vaccine to ensure it is administered only to the approved population.”

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The Peregrine Fund noted that the condor deaths included 14-breeding-aged birds, 11 of which had been observed nesting or tending to young. “In a matter of weeks, this event has set our recovery back a decade or more,” they said in a notice seeking more emergency support for the condors.

This emergency use approval is limited to the endangered California condors. USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists are evaluating four vaccine candidates for U.S. poultry, with trials expected to produce results by June.

The National Chicken Council opposes vaccinating entire poultry flocks because of trade concerns, while the National Turkey Federation supports vaccination if done in coordination to avoid trade conflicts.

“APHIS does not expect (vaccinating vultures and condors) to result in impacts to poultry trade,” the agency said, because the vultures and California condors are wild birds, not poultry as defined by the World Organization of Animal Health.

HPAI detections have steadily occurred since first being detected in a wild North Carolina bird in January 2022.

Improved biosecurity protocols have lessened the blow of the current outbreak compared to the previous wave of detections in 2014-2015, but nearly 58.8 million commercial birds have still been depopulated in the last 15 months. According to an APHIS dashboard, the virus has been confirmed in six states in the last 30 days.

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