US considers vaccinating poultry against largest outbreak of bird flu
Since the beginning of 2022, over 6,000 wild birds and more than 58 million poultry and backyard flocks have been affected by the highly pathogenic bird flu, referred to as H5N1, in the United States. The virus has already crossed over to mammals like minks, foxes, raccoons, and bears, causing concerns that it could mutate and become transmissible to humans.
And now, the U.S. government is contemplating vaccinating poultry due to concerns about the virus spreading and causing damage to farms across the U.S., according to a recent report from The New York Times. This would be the first instance of a large-scale vaccination campaign aimed at birds in the U.S. However, some trials on prospective poultry vaccines are currently being conducted.
The risk of an H5N1 pandemic is low
Human infections caused by bird flu are quite rare, and the transmission of bird flu between humans is exceedingly rare. There are only 240 cases of H5N1 in humans documented globally since 2003, according to an update by The World Health Organization (WHO).
Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who primarily concentrate on human health, also assess the risk of an H5N1 pandemic as low.
However, as a precautionary measure, the CDC has provided flu virus samples to drug manufacturers, which could be used to develop vaccines for humans. The agency is also considering the possibility of commercial test manufacturers developing tests for H5N1, similar to those used for COVID-19.
Vaccination could lead to trade restrictions
While farm birds are already vaccinated against various infectious poultry diseases, such as fowlpox, implementing a vaccination program for avian influenza would be a complicated process. Furthermore, there is a division among poultry trade associations about the vaccination process since it could lead to trade restrictions that may adversely impact the $6 billion poultry export industry.
Dr. Carol Cardona, an expert on avian health at the University of Minnesota, stated that the fear of trade bans is a huge obstacle against mass poultry vaccination. “This is the undeclared war — trade,” she told The New York Times.
White House officials say that there are other actions being considered aside from vaccinating poultry. Their current priority is to urge poultry farms to implement biosecurity measures that can prevent the spread of the virus.
Despite this, avian influenza experts suggest that the government should still proceed with a vaccination campaign to decrease the possibility of a human pandemic. Some of them are urging the administration to take swift action.
While it's still not clear whether the government will decide to vaccinate birds or not. But even if it does so, time will tell if the method will work.