WASHINGTON, July 8, 2015 – After the avian influenza outbreak caused the depopulation of more than 48 million birds, government and poultry industry officials are looking ahead and hoping to prevent another major outbreak in the upcoming fall migration season. Iowa, the biggest egg-producing state, was hit hardest by the outbreak, with more than 31 million birds – mostly chickens – killed by the virus or euthanized to stop its spread.
At a Tuesday afternoon hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Clifford, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said the risk of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) reemerging in the fall is “significant.” The disease is largely spread by migratory flocks of wild birds, which have for the most part finished migrating for now, which contributes to the sharp drop in reported detections; the last reported instance of the disease was June 17 at a laying hen facility in Wright County, Iowa.
As bad as the outbreak was – there have been 223 detections in 15 states since mid-December -- Clifford and his agency received numerous accolades from both senators and producers who also testified at the hearing.
“If it weren’t for the rapid response by all involved, including impacted producers, the virus could have caused more damage,” Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said at the hearing. He added that the government response and the demonstrated cooperation between government and industry “is the kind of coordinated effort that will ensure the U.S. poultry sector weathers this storm.”
Looking ahead, Clifford said APHIS is taking “proactive steps to be ready for the fall.” He said the agency is preparing for a worst-case scenario of 500 detections in 20 states, but obviously hoping for a better outcome than that. The fall migration season could begin as early as late August in some parts of Minnesota and continue on for several following months. The virus also thrives in cooler temperatures.
Clifford pointed to several lessons learned throughout the outbreak, most notably depopulation protocols. He said APHIS will work to expedite the depopulation process, which, if slowed, has the potential to only spread the disease even more quickly.
“Any delay in putting birds down puts more virus into the environment, so the more virus in the environment, the more likelihood of spread,” Clifford said. “We all collectively need to go forward and work to quickly do these things.”
Clifford also said funding could be a potential issue moving forward. USDA has already committed more than $500 million to the fight, more than half of APHIS’ annual budget. More than $190 million has already been doled out in indemnity payments, and that number could increase with a resurgence of the disease in the fall. He said APHIS has recently received authorization to hire 460 temporary employees, about 300 of whom will be responders such as animal health technicians and veterinarians.
Debate continues about the efficacy of a vaccine, and Clifford doesn’t appear to be sold that anything currently available is the right option. He said the potential barriers to trade caused by vaccine use are among a laundry list of reasons that APHIS hasn’t approved a vaccine.
“We can eradicate this disease without the use of a vaccine. If vaccine is used, it doesn’t mean that a particular bird won’t become affected with (HPAI), and if they do, we still will take out the entire flock even though they’re vaccinated,” Clifford said, pointing out that there is no available vaccine effective against the strains of avian influenza causing the most trouble in the U.S. “So there’s pros and cons on the use of vaccine. We have to weigh all of those things together.”
Two producers who testified at the hearing were also split on the vaccination issue: Brad Moline, an Iowa turkey producer, said he would like to use a vaccine, while James Dean, an Iowa egg producer, said he felt the disease could be eliminated without using a vaccine that could potentially hamper international trade.
Later, on a call with reporters, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who requested the hearing along with his in-state colleague Joni Ernst, called the hearing “the start of a dialogue within the Congress.” He said that if there is another outbreak of the disease in the fall, he hopes it will “be handled more expeditiously and with less economic damage.”
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