Red tape, vaccine issues, future fears mark avian flu hearing

Laying hens
Laying hens

Aumsama / iStock

A US Senate committee hearing yesterday on the H5N2 avian influenza crisis in the Midwest was dominated by concerns about government red tape and delays, fears that the virus will return in the fall, and the pros and cons of vaccinating poultry.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials stressed that when the disease strikes a poultry barn, it's critical to euthanize the birds quickly to prevent further spread, but said that task is slow and difficult on large farms. Some senators and poultry industry officials complained that paperwork requirements slowed the USDA response to the disease.

USDA officials said the H5N2 outbreaks seem to be over for now but warned that southbound migratory birds could bring it back in the fall. They plan to stockpile a vaccine against that threat, but said using it could cost the nation billions in lost poultry exports.

The hearing, convened by the Senate Agriculture Committee, also brought complaints that the indemnities paid by the USDA to poultry farmers hit by the outbreak are inadequate for egg farms because they don't cover the value of lost egg production.

211 commercial farms, 50 million birds

Highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) has been confirmed in 211 commercial poultry farms in nine states, with 7.5 million turkeys and 42 million chickens and pullets killed by the virus and precautionary euthanization, the USDA's John Clifford, DVM, said in prepared testimony. He is deputy administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Those numbers represent about 3% of the nation's annual turkey production and 10% of its egg-laying chicken population, he reported.

Thomas Elam, PhD, an economist and president of FarmEcon, LLC, in Carmel, Ind., said he estimates the direct losses to the poultry industry at about $1.75 billion, including $530 million for the turkey sector and a little over $1 billion for egg farmers. "The economy-wide loss is conservatively estimated at about $3.3 billion," he added.

Clifford said more than 400 APHIS staff members and 2,000 contract personnel have been working in the affected states, primarily Iowa and Minnesota. The agency has paid out more than $180 million in indemnities to affected farmers, and has committed more than $500 million—over half of its annual budget—to the response, he added.

In response to questions about whether APHIS needs more resources, Clifford said, "I think APHIS as an organization has always been very well prepared for the level of resources we get," but added, "These tasks really strain us."

Quick killing needed

When he was asked about lessons the USDA has learned from the crisis, Clifford said, "It's key to put birds down quickly, and in some places there were delays in doing that. The longer birds live, the more virus production and the more environmental contamination and more spread. We were able to get turkeys down pretty quickly in Minnesota."

But he explained that euthanizing thousands of poultry is no easy task. A common way of doing it is to pump carbon dioxide into poultry houses, suffocating the birds.

"We can only take about 100,000 birds a day with CO2," he said, noting that some farms have 3 million birds. He added that workers clearing barns of dead birds can work only about 30 minutes at a stretch because of the heat.

"This is huge," he said. "You're talking about [piles of] manure and birds and products that can be literally miles long, 4 to 5 feet wide and 6 to 8 feet tall. It's not an easy task."

Frustrating paperwork

Others complained about the amount of paperwork required of poultry farmers hit by the outbreak. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said, "We've fielded many calls. The process of gaining approval for the depopulation, disposal, repopulating, and indemnification has been very complicated and frustrating for them."

Brad R. Moline, owner and manager of Moline Farms, a turkey operation in Manson, Iowa, said the goal should be to depopulate all infected birds within 24 hours of confirmation of avian flu. When his farm was hit, the infection was confirmed on a Tuesday, and it took until Saturday to start euthanizing the turkeys, largely because of paperwork, he reported.

James R. Dean of Sioux Center, Iowa, chairman of United Egg Producers, agreed with Moline. He added that there should be more incentive for producers to handle the depopulation and disinfection of barns themselves, because they can do it "a lot quicker" than USDA contractors can.

Clifford said the USDA has speeded up its outbreak response time. "As soon as there's a presumptive positive, we get somebody there," he said.

He added that the USDA is looking at faster ways to euthanize poultry: "We're considering closing the houses, turning off the ventilators and heating up the house. Some have concerns, but it's probably the most humane way of doing this."

Clifford also commented that the biggest obstacle to efficient depopulation of flocks, particularly in Iowa, has been a shortage of landfills and composting sites for dead birds. Help from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was needed to solve the problem.

"It was hard to break down some of those barriers initially," Clifford said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced concern about conflicting information provided by the USDA to poultry farmers. Clifford responded that some communication problems were caused by contractors and that APHIS has taken steps to address those, in some cases letting contractors go.

"We plan to embed a federal person in each of these contract crews, to prevent misinformation," he added.

A feared fall return

David Swayne, DVM, PhD, director of the USDA's Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, Ga., said the lack of H5N2 outbreak for the past few weeks suggests the virus is gone for now. "The question is whether it'll come back with migratory birds in the fall. Are we prepared for a potential onslaught of another wave of outbreaks?"

Clifford, in his prepared testimony, called a fall return of the virus "very likely" and said states in the Atlantic flyway should prepare for that threat. He predicted that in the worst case, 20 states could be affected by an autumn resurgence of the H5N2 virus.

Vaccine pros and cons

Much discussion centered on the possibility of using a vaccine to stop avian flu. The prospect raises difficult questions, because unless a vaccine is very effective, vaccinated birds may become infected without showing signs of illness. Such birds may then spread the virus to unvaccinated birds.

Swayne told the committee that his lab is currently testing an H5 vaccine in chickens and turkeys. If it works, it will be turned over to a commercial vaccine manufacturer.

He said that Egypt, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia have used poultry vaccines to fight HPAI and noted that avian flu vaccines, like human flu vaccines, must be updated frequently. "Long-term use has been associated with vaccine failure and resistance," he said.

Clifford emphasized the risk to US poultry exports if the vaccine card is played.

"We plan to stockpile a vaccine for the fall," he said. "That doesn't mean we're going to use the vaccine, but we want it ready for use. . . . The limiting factor for the use of that is trade. We have to weigh the loss of $3 to $4 billion of trade against the use of the vaccine."

"Worldwide, people look at use of vaccine as an inability to control the spread of the disease," Clifford said.

When a senator asked Clifford why no vaccine has yet been approved, he again cited the risk to US trade, and added, "You can eradicate this disease without a vaccine. If you use a vaccine, birds can still get infected, and you still have to take out the entire house. It's not lack of approval of vaccine, it's the impact it'll have if we do use them."

Poultry industry representatives at the hearing were not unanimous on the vaccine issue. Moline, the Iowa turkey farmer, said he'd be happy to use a vaccine. "We vaccinate for a lot of things already, and we want a vaccine and we'd be more than glad to do it at the hatchery or the farm or both."

But Dean, of United Egg Producers, took a different view. He said chickens would have to be vaccinated at the hatchery and then get two booster shots later. That would mean a lot of people entering the barns and would put operators who choose to vaccinate at a disadvantage. "I'd rather see an effective stamp-out program rather than vaccination," he said.

In other comments, Swayne said in response to questions that his lab is checking whether swine are susceptible to the circulating H5 viruses, given the concern that swine can serve as a mixing vessel for flu viruses, potentially giving rise to new strains. He added that some swine surveillance for the virus is being done.

See also:

Jul 7 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing information

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