US agencies report plans to detect H5N1 in birds

Mar 20, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – The chiefs of three federal agencies, predicting that the H5N1 avian influenza virus will enter the United States, today unveiled their joint plan for quickly detecting the virus.

"We're closely monitoring the rapid spread of the H5N1 virus overseas," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. "We now believe it is likely that we will detect it within our borders in the United States. It is critically important to understand that the detection of this virus among birds will not signal the start of a pandemic among people. The time is now to expand our early warning system."

Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, along with Johanns, conducted a joint press conference today to prepare people for the possible arrival of the H5N1 virus in the US. The news conference was broadcast live via the Internet.

The interagency plan, which received final approval today, Johanns said, relies on a number of methods to screen wild birds, notably birds migrating along the Pacific flyway to and from Alaska.

The recent rapid spread of H5N1 in other countries underscores the likelihood of the virus spreading to the United States.

"It is increasingly likely that we will detect the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu in birds within the US borders, possibly as early as this year," Norton said. She outlined a plan for systematic monitoring of birds that includes:

  • Testing of sick or dead wild birds
  • Testing of live wild birds, particularly the highest-risk species, using capture and sampling (not killing birds)
  • Targeted sampling of hunter-killed birds
  • Monitoring and testing of sentinel animals, including backyard poultry flocks and waterfowl placed in wetlands to mix with migratory birds
  • Testing of environmental samples, including water and avian fecal samples

Systematic investigation of sick or dead wild birds offers the highest probability of detecting H5N1 early, Norton added. Authorities expect to collect 75,000 to 100,000 samples for testing in 2006. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Interior Department have tested more than 16,000 birds in the Pacific and Atlantic flyways since 1998, according to a news release. The birds have all tested negative for the lethal H5N1 strain, but 22 low-pathogenicity avian flu isolates have been identified.

Samples will be tested at the appropriate laboratories, Norton said, but she cautioned that initial positive tests are considered presumptive, not definitive. Positive samples will be sent to the USDA's national laboratory in Ames, Iowa, for confirmatory testing.

"We anticipate that presumptive H5N1 results may be announced 20 to 100 times this year," she said. There could be dozens of reports of H5N1 without any highly pathogenic strains, she added.

Discussing how the agencies will collaborate, Johanns said:

  • The Interior Department will monitor wild birds through the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the US Geological Survey (USGS), as well as the National Park Service (NPS).
  • The USDA has a connection to wild birds through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Agricultural Research Service, although its main focus is domestic flocks.
  • HHS is chiefly responsible for human health.

Johanns also described efforts to prevent the possible spread of H5N1 virus from wild to domestic birds.

"None of us can build a cage around the United States," he said. He emphasized that the nation's $29 billion poultry system is highly biosecure, so the presence of H5N1 in migratory birds does not necessarily mean that commercial poultry will be infected. Further, he said the US has demonstrated an ability to handle outbreaks of highly pathogenic viruses, even as recently as 2004.

In addition, producers will be compensated for destroyed birds, and they have demonstrated that they'll notify the government at the first signs of illness among their birds, he said.

"Unlike what we have seen in some countries, where producers are reluctant to report the virus because of economic losses, our producers know their loss will be covered if they call us," Johanns said. Although he mentioned the possibility of limited vaccination in a ring around affected areas, he said culling of infected flocks would be the chief approach to eliminating the virus if it reaches commercial poultry.

Leavitt provided an overview of preparations for a human pandemic that hewed closely to his talks at pandemic meetings in several states. He reiterated a point made by all three secretaries as they sought to prepare people for the arrival of the virus in US birds without provoking undue fear or panic.

"At this point, if you're a bird, it's a pandemic," Leavitt said. "If you're a human being, it's not. It's as simple as that."

See also:

USDA news release about the interagency briefing

Link to recorded Webcast
http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome

Full text of US strategy for early detection of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza in wild birds, Mar 13, 2006 (91 pages)
http://www.usda.gov/documents/wildbirdstrategicplanpdf.pdf

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