The Biden administration is considering the mass vaccination of the poultry population in response to an ongoing outbreak of avian flu that has killed off millions of birds and has helped spike egg and poultry costs.
There are some existing vaccines for farm birds, but U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman Mike Stepien told The New York Times that no vaccination effort has been authorized and the department is unsure if the existing vaccines will be effective against the current strain of H5N1 bird flu. Erica Spackman, a researcher for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, told the newspaper that scientists are researching new vaccine candidates to help curb the ongoing bird flu outbreak.
Thus far, the Biden administration has made no decision to impose a poultry vaccine mandate.
“There are a range of options the United States regularly considers when there is any outbreak that could affect the security and safety of the United States’ food supply,” the White House National Security Council told news outlets on Monday. “Right now, we are focused on promoting and enhancing high-impact biosafety practices and procedures.”
Instead of a bird flu vaccine program, many farmers have instead been culling millions of their livestock. At least 52.3 million birds were killed off throughout the United States in 2022.
“The Department of Agriculture continues to respond quickly whenever the virus is detected among bird populations,” the National Security Council said on Monday.
Bird Flu Risks
Bird flu can be deadly. An 11-year-old girl in Cambodia died last month after becoming infected with H5N1.
Bird flu can spread to humans through direct contact between a person and a farm bird or between a person and a contaminated surface. Bird flu contaminants can also spread through droplets or dust particles that a farm bird could kick up when it flaps its wings.
For now, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention assesses that the risk of H5N1 spreading to humans remains low. That said, disease researchers have heightened concerns over growing numbers of infections among wild birds and some mammal species and the possibility the virus could evolve to spread more easily between people.
Vaccine Program Would Have Trade-Offs
Vaccinating millions of farm birds could be a complicated endeavor, and while a vaccine program may be able to slow or prevent the spread of the bird flu, it could also trigger trade bans.
“We don’t have any assurance that any of our trading partners would accept our products if we began vaccinating any birds,” Julie Gauthier, the USDA veterinary service’s assistant director for poultry health, told Lancaster Farming in October.
While a vaccine program might help farmers to prevent disease outbreaks and preserve more of their livestock and poultry products, the costs of the program might outweigh the international trade regulations a vaccine program could trigger.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of poultry meat, accounting for about 17 percent of the global output, according to United Nations data.
The United States exported an average of $4.4 billion worth of poultry meat annually between 2017 and 2021.
Other countries are also considering a new poultry vaccine program to counteract the H5N1 bird flu.
Professor Ian Brown, who is advising the United Kingdom government’s response to the bird flu, recently told the newspaper i that the UK is also considering a new vaccine program. Brown said such a vaccination program “represents quite a big change, because vaccination is prohibited in the U.K. in poultry.”
“So it has to be carefully balanced, but obviously with the changing risk, looking at vaccination as one component of a control program is obviously prudent,” Brown added.
The European Union already has a poultry vaccine ready to respond to H5N1. The European Commission announced animals and goods can flow between businesses and zones where vaccinations have taken place, beginning on March 12.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.