USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday told the Senate Agriculture Committee that he feels there is “a long way to go” before a vaccine for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) would be acceptable, citing the disastrous impacts to trade markets, the lack of viability of current vaccines, and numerous implementation problems.

In an exchange with Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Secretary Vilsack clarified USDA’s position on the use of an HPAI vaccine.

“The poultry industry is a crucial economic driver for my state as it represents 65 percent of Alabama’s agricultural income and provides 86,000 jobs,” Sen. Tuberville said. “Considering the U.S. exports approximately 18 percent of chicken meat production – which is valued at over $4 billion annually – we must maintain strong trade agreements and our export markets. I am concerned about HPAI vaccine mandates impacting those markets as most nations do not accept imports from vaccinating countries. It is my understanding that the use of a HPAI vaccine will not eliminate or eradicate the virus – similar to the COVID-19 vaccine. Since a vaccine will not keep birds from getting the virus or eradicate the virus from the U.S., do you think it is a useful tool?

“At the present time there is no vaccine for the current strain of the HPAI virus,” Secretary Vilsack said in response. “There are a number of vaccines that are in the process of being developed. There is a long way to go, Senator, before we can say we have a vaccine. Then there’s additional steps that have to be taken in order to determine the impact and effect of a vaccine on the ability to sell product overseas. There are a number of countries that will basically shut off exports if the meat has been vaccinated, if the poultry has been vaccinated. So, I think there’s a process there. But we’re a long way away from having a vaccine that is effective and a long way from having a vaccine that the rest of the world accepts.”

A YouTube video of the exchange can be found here.

Recent media reports have indicated that USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plans to conduct trials for a vaccine for HPAI in the coming months.

“Should the trials be successful, and should USDA elect to continue development, the next step is identifying manufacturers interested in vaccine production,” a USDA official said to Agri-Pulse this week. “Once one or more manufacturers are identified there are 20 discrete stages to complete before vaccine delivery. General timeframes are 2.5-3 years, but in emergency situations manufacturers may expedite development, resulting in a shortened timeframe to licensure.”

In response to various media reports suggesting the use of a vaccine for HPAI, the National Chicken Council has issued the following response, attributable to NCC Senior Vice President of Communications Tom Super:

“Currently, the National Chicken Council does not support the use of a vaccine for HPAI for a variety of reasons – the primary one being trade.  Most countries, including the U.S., do not recognize countries that vaccinate as free of HPAI due to concerns that vaccines can mask the presence of the disease. Therefore, they do not accept exports from countries that do vaccinate.

“The U.S. broiler industry is the second largest exporter of chicken in the world, exporting about 18 percent of our chicken meat production valued at more than $5 billion annually. If we start vaccinating for HPAI in the U.S., the broiler industry will lose our ability to export which will have a significant impact on the industry – while costing billions and billions of dollars to the U.S. economy every year. These export losses would also have a devastating impact on thousands of family farmers who raise the birds.  Even if one sector (eggs, turkeys) moves forward with a vaccine, the broiler industry will be impacted as our trading partners view all poultry (egg layers, turkeys, broilers, ducks, etc.) the same.

“In addition, a vaccine will not eliminate the virus. Birds can still get HPAI and may not show signs of having the virus which allows the virus to replicate and spread (known as masking).

“During the current outbreak, of the birds affected, about 76 percent have been commercial egg-laying hens, 17 percent turkeys and only 5 percent broilers and broiler breeders (meat chickens.) The rest have been ducks, backyard chickens and game birds. So the U.S. poultry sector that least needs a vaccine would have the most to risk from using one.

“We support ongoing discussions about a vaccination program, but currently we support the eradication policy of APHIS and believe that right now this is the best approach at eliminating HPAI in the U.S.”