USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has begun avian influenza vaccination trials that might be effective against the deadly virus in another 18 to 24 months.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), often referred to as “bird flu,” has been on a rampage for the past year resulting in the loss of 58 million birds and inflating egg prices. Fears are building around the possibility that HPAI will become a regular seasonal event and that the virus may be present in not only wild birds but domestic flocks. Also, it is increasingly being detected in mammals.

USDA reports testing one vaccine from Zoetis, one from Merck Animal Health, and two of its own from the Agriculture Research Service.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates veterinary biologics, including animal vaccines. APHIS reviews and approves vaccine candidates to ensure they are safe, potent, pure, effective, and well-matched against the genetics of the current virus strain.

USDA reports that its “ARS researchers are currently testing several vaccine candidates. Initial data from the animal study with a single dose of the vaccine are expected to be available in May 2023. The researchers expect to have two-dose vaccine challenge studies with results in June 2023.”

“Should the trials be successful, and should USDA elect to continue development, the next step is identifying manufacturers interested in vaccine production,” USDA continued. “Once one or more manufacturers are identified, there are 20 discrete stages to complete before vaccine delivery. These stages begin with feasibility work by the manufacturer and culminate with product label submission and review. General timeframes are 2.5 to 3 years; however, in emergency situations manufacturers may expedite development, resulting in a shortened timeframe to licensure.

“From vaccine development to production timelines, to dissemination to flocks, there are many factors that make implementing a vaccine strategy a challenge and it would take time to deliver an effective vaccine,” it added. “In a best-case scenario, USDA estimates an 18-24 month timeline before having a vaccine that matches the currently circulating virus strain, is available in commercial quantities, and can be easily administered to commercial poultry.”

Up until now, USDA has combated bird flu with commercial bird tracking, disease surveillance, documentation of domestic and international trade, indemnity payments, and education and guidance on cleaning, disinfection, and disposal. the destruction of flocks is used to control spreading.

USDA has insisted that its “current strategy of stamping out and eradicating HPAI continues to be the most effective strategy because it works.”

There are, however, indications that USDA has been slow on vaccines. France has 80 million doses of vaccine being delivered for a fall vaccination program for its ducks. And after the 2014-15 bird flu outbreak, Zoetis said it offered a vaccine to USDA, but it went unused.

Vaccine trials are a first step and USDA is under no obligation to ultimately approve any uses.

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to report that ” the overall risk to human health associated with the ongoing (Avian Influenza) outbreaks in wild birds and poultry has not changed and remains low at this time.”

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