A vaccine for avian flu could be on the way to a chicken coop near you. As first reported by The New York Times this week, officials within the Biden administration are considering a vaccine for poultry, in the wake of a devastating wave of avian flu.
The first cases of avian flu, or H5N1, were reported last year, with everyone from commercial producers to backyard egg sellers impacted. Some lost their entire flocks. Current totals show that more than 58 million farmed birds were culled in 47 states, with Pennsylvania hit the hardest. The agency has also confirmed more than 6,000 positive outbreaks in wild birds. The virus has even spread to other animals, such as foxes and raccoons, prompting concerns that it could mutate and infect people.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control say the risk of mass infection in humans is low. Typically, only people with close contact to birds are at risk, and there is currently only one confirmed case of a person with avian flu.
However, reports from the USDA indicate that the administration is testing poultry vaccines and that discussions on a widespread vaccination program have begun. The CDC and Agricultural Research Service are reportedly working to develop vaccines, but they don’t expect to have results until May.
In 2021, the USDA launched a five-year research project to test out new vaccines, as well as to determine if those vaccines would cause the virus to mutate at a higher rate. The USDA does have several vaccines at its disposal, already licensed, but it hasn’t used them yet. Those vaccines would still need to pass through several stages to gain approval, a process that can take years. As of now, none of the vaccines has shown particular efficacy against the current strain of avian flu, so they are still in the research phase.
Other countries, such as Ecuador and France, are set to begin vaccinating poultry this year, as concerns about avian flu continue. Others, such as China, have had vaccination programs in place for decades. However, the US, the largest poultry producer in the world, isn’t ready to take firm action yet. Representatives from the USDA told Reuters last month that a vaccine would have “detrimental impacts on poultry trade” as it would necessitate things such as quarantine and surveillance testing. However, with flocks across the country still dealing with the impacts of avian flu, it appears the US is closer than ever to moving forward with a vaccine.