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Bird flu has ravaged U.S. poultry. Now a vaccine could be on the way

Third generation turkey grower Pete Klaphake raises 1.7 million turkeys per year near Sauk Centre, Minn.

Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Paul Middlestaedt
Third generation turkey grower Pete Klaphake stands among 90-day old turkeys that are just a couple of weeks from market. "There's a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to the effectiveness and then the process of how to do (vaccines)," Klaphake said. "But if there was one available, would we use it? Absolutely."

Highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, has hit the U.S. hard over the last year and a half — leaving 60 million chickens and turkeys dead across 47 states. The USDA is working on a vaccine, but that could create new issues.

Bird flu struck two of Pete Klaphake’s turkey farms last year, one right after the other. He lost more than 100,000 turkeys, a staggering number that hit Klaphake, his family and their employees hard.

“There were tears. There was frustration,” he said. “There was kind of, ‘What did I do? How could I let this happen? I failed.’ That type of thing.”

On Klaphake’s farm near Sauk Centre in central Minnesota, a sign on the barn door warns that “biosecurity measures are in force.” Those measures include changing boots every time Klaphake and his employees go into a different barn.

“You do what you can to make sure that it doesn't happen, but there are some things that are also out of your control,” he said.

Third generation turkey grower Pete Klaphake raises 1.7 million turkeys per year at his Sauk Centre, Minn farm.

Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Paul Middlestaedt
Pete Klaphake raises 1.7 million turkeys per year on several farms across central Minnesota. His operation lost more than 100,000 turkeys to bird flu last year.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture says bird flu cases have slowed across the nation, officials are working to develop a vaccine to protect commercial poultry. Researchers are testing eight potential vaccines for commercial poultry at the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Georgia.

“We need to have it in our toolbox, right? In case things get worse,” said Alecia Naugle, the associate deputy administrator for veterinary services with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Some of the vaccines the USDA is testing were developed but never used back in 2015 during the last major bird flu outbreak, Naugle said, which affected more than 50 million commercial chickens and turkeys.

The U.S. has vaccines for bird flu. Why aren’t they used?

During the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak, USDA researchers conducted trials to find a vaccine that would work for the strain of bird flu circulating the U.S.

Officials identified an effective vaccine and a company worked with them to get licensure for it. But before the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) could approve it for commercial use, the bird flu outbreak dissipated.

Third generation turkey grower Pete Klaphake raises 1.7 million turkeys per year at his Sauk Centre, Minn farm.

Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Paul Middlestaedt
A sign on one of Pete Klaphake's turkey barns reads "Biosecurity measures are in force. No entrance without authorization." Poultry producers have adopted numerous practices, such as cleaning their boots and having a specific pair of boots they wear into each of their barns, in order to keep bird flu off of their farms.

Recently, the USDA APHIS approved an emergency use for a 2015 bird flu vaccine to be used in critically endangered California condors after more than a dozen died and were confirmed to have bird flu.

But the agency hasn’t given approval for a bird flu vaccine to be used for commercial poultry.

”Some of the vaccines that are available now, we don't know how well they're going to protect against the current strain,” Naugle said.

For now, the agency continues to tout biosecurity as the best practice to reduce the spread of bird flu.

“The important thing is to increase biosecurity measures and see if this is the way that we can continue to control its spread without going down the vaccination path,” Naugle said. “But we do have to be prepared.”

Potential trade complications

If researchers develop a vaccine that proves effective, there could be a big downside — experts say it would be more difficult to spot signs of bird flu among vaccinated poultry.

“We would not be as likely to actually see birds that are sick,” Naugle said, “or see deaths from birds.”

And if spotting bird flu were more difficult in vaccinated birds, other countries may turn away U.S. poultry, complicating trade. That’s a major concern for the USDA, producers and industry groups.

Though only a small percentage of eggs and turkey produced in the U.S. are exported to other countries, Greg Tyler, the president and CEO of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Export Council, said 20% of broiler chickens produced in the U.S. are exported.

“If vaccines were to move through without careful planning and working with our trading partners to make sure that we have agreements in place, that if vaccinations were to start that we would still be able to export, we're talking about $6.2 billion worth of loss just on the export side up front,” Tyler said.

USDA officials say if a vaccine were developed, it would only be used in targeted areas where bird flu was rapidly spreading.

But industry groups still worry that even if only a small portion of birds in isolated locations are vaccinated, trading partners would still ban all poultry exports. That’s why the National Chicken Council is against using a vaccine for bird flu, said spokesman Tom Super in an email.

Broiler chickens have only made up about 5% of the affected birds during this outbreak, Super pointed out, yet they make up a significant portion of U.S. exports.

“The U.S. poultry sector that least needs a vaccine would have the most to risk from using one,” he said.

Third generation turkey grower Pete Klaphake raises 1.7 million turkeys per year at his Sauk Centre, Minn farm.

Photo by Paul Middlestaedt
Paul Middlestaedt
Minnesota turkey producer Pete Klaphake says he thinks a vaccine to protect poultry from bird flu "would be a positive for us." But he's concerned about what it could mean for U.S. trade. That's a concern other producers, industry groups and even the USDA share. They're worried that countries would block U.S. poultry exports because of concerns that the virus could be harder to spot in vaccinated birds.

‘Yesterday would have probably been better’

The USDA’s vaccination trials should finish in August. In a best case scenario the agency says a vaccine could be available in 18-24 months.

If bird flu remains at reduced levels, the USDA is unlikely to push for vaccinations.

“Right now, the cost of using a vaccine from both the market loss for international trade and the cost of actually applying the vaccine, far, far exceeds anything we think we would gain by using it,” the USDA’s Naugle said.

With increased difficulty in spotting the disease, Naugle said it might be necessary to develop a test to detect between a vaccinated bird and a sick bird. But increased testing and surveillance would likely be costly.

And U.S. consumers could also be impacted.

Jada Thompson, an economist at the University of Arkansas, said consumers can expect to pay more for chicken, turkey or eggs at the grocery store if commercial birds were to be vaccinated.

“If you’re adding anything to a production system, the costs are going to go up,” Thompson said. “And there’s no margin of room to eat that cost.”

Yet Thompson said a lot of this is hypothetical. As the outbreak diminishes, a vaccine may not arrive fast enough to address the current bird flu strain.

Pete Klaphake shows a handful of the feed . While the turkey producer is aware there would be risks with a vaccine, he's still eager for one to be developed.
Paul Middlestaedt
Pete Klaphake shows a handful of feed produced at the Klaphake Feed Mill for the turkey operation. While he's aware there would be risks with a vaccine and has some concerns himself, Klaphake is still eager for one to be developed.

Back at his central Minnesota turkey farm, Pete Klaphake says a vaccine would have been great to have last year.

“Yesterday would have probably been better,” Klaphake said, “but I understand it’s a process. I mean it’s a huge process.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Katie Peikes is Iowa Public Radio's agriculture reporter. She joined IPR in July 2018 as its first-ever western Iowa reporter.
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