Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are exploring the development of novel poultry vaccines. The agency is also discussing an unprecedented mass bird flu vaccination initiative with industry leaders.
The UK and the European Union are also considering similar initiatives to vaccinate poultry.
Bird flu threat to humans remains remote at present
A mass vaccination campaign against H5N1 could protect humans from infections of the virus, which the CDC considers a remote possibility.
The $35.5 billion poultry industry worries that a comprehensive vaccination campaign could negatively impact the sector.
According to Dr. Teresa Morishita, a professor of poultry medicine and food safety at Western University of Health Sciences, COVID-19 has demonstrated how quickly these different virus strains can mutate.
Most avian influenza viruses cannot infect humans, but a subset can. To date, there have been 240 reports of human infection from the H5N1 virus since 2003, according to WHO. A total of 135 of those infections (56%) proved fatal.
The poultry trade is divided on a mass vaccination campaign as it might lead to trade restrictions. Scientists say a vaccination campaign could reduce the risk of a human pandemic.
The CDC is also discussing with the industry the prospect of creating antigen tests for H5N1, similar to those used for COVID-19, according to The New York Times.
“The trouble doesn’t end with commercial poultry. An outbreak amongst backyard poultry flocks is also of great concern,” Morishita said.
An 11-year-old Cambodian girl died recently from an H5N1 infection probably linked to close contact with birds. The girl, however, was infected with a different virus from what is currently circulating in the U.S. The Cambodian Ministry of Health said the virus in question was H5 clade 188.8.131.52c. The highly contagious H5 clade 184.108.40.206c subtype of H5N1 can cause severe respiratory illness in humans.
The current outbreak in the U.S. could be the deadliest in history. To date, it has killed 58.6 million birds in the U.S., according to USDA stats. In addition, farmers have identified the virus strain responsible for the outbreak in 46 states.
Other countries, including Estonia, are also grappling with the bird flu outbreak.