The U.S. is experiencing the worst and largest animal disease event in its history with the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in poultry, and USDA is preparing for a worst-case scenario in the fall of 2015, said John Clifford, the chief veterinary officer of the United States.
Speaking before the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC), Dr. Clifford said, “The secretary of agriculture has asked the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to prepare for a worst-case scenario [with highly pathogenic avian influenza] in the fall of 2015, and we are doing that.”
A worst-case scenario, he said, would involve the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza returning in migratory wild birds in the fall of 2015 and infections occurring in all poultry sectors – broilers, turkeys and egg layers – and across the country including in the broiler production regions of the Southeastern U.S. and the Upper Midwest and California.
Clifford said another part of such a scenario is if the H5N2 virus were to genetically reassort to present a different strain than the one presently infecting poultry and wild birds in the U.S.
Cost of avian flu outbreaks in U.S.
Clifford estimated the high-path avian flu outbreaks so far had cost $600 million dollars. “If the disease returns in the fall,” he said, “I would not be surprised if the cost would be $1 billion to $2 billion.”
Clifford: Prepare for AI in all U.S. flyways in fall
Clifford said preparations for better biosecurity are essential in the planning process.
He said: “I believe [high-path avian influenza virus] will be in the fourth flyway in the fall. Already this year there were findings of the virus in wild birds in Ontario, Canada. I believe it will be present in wild birds in all the U.S. flyways this fall.
“I hope the high-path virus becomes overtaken by a low path strain and ceases to exist in the wild bird populations, but I don’t believe anybody can predict how long it will take.”
Unprecedented avian flu challenge in wild birds
In assessing the current avian flu disease challenge, Clifford said, “For the first time, we have high-path avian influenza all around the world in wild ducks. Things have changed and we all need to recognize those changes. This has caught all of us off guard.”
The planning process being led by USDA’s APHIS will require input from the U.S. poultry industry and consultations with trading partners.
“So, we have a very short window of time to prepare and be ready by the fall before the wild bird migration starts,” he said.
Speaking to the USAPEEC members, Clifford said, “We need to work together to address these things and close the gaps [in biosecurity] in order to help protect our industry and the health and economic well-being of our entire nation.”
Comprehensive plan and execution will cost millions of dollars
Clifford said APHIS is working on a comprehensive plan that would likely cost the government and the poultry industry millions of dollars.
“If we have to spend millions of dollars on preparation and no disease outbreaks occur in the fall, I will be elated. But, I am afraid that is not just going to happen. There is backyard poultry, and there are areas of contamination in the environment. And we are probably going to see some cases. But seeing some cases would be better than having 50 million birds being put down and destroyed. That’s what we need to prevent from happening again. It is going to take a huge amount of effort and time and cost from the industry to recover from this,” he said.
Biosecurity is essential part of preparation
“Part of this planning requires good biosecurity,” he said. “Our epidemiology report indicates many factors are involved in the disease’s spread. But we are going to need your help to do it."
He concluded, “Looking at high-path AI, this is not the federal government’s problem. It is your problem. It is the states' problem. It is our problem as well; and it is going to take all of us to solve this.”
Vaccination plans and scenarios
“The use of vaccine has to part of our planning for the fall,” Clifford continued. “I am not saying we are going to use it, but our planning will include things like how and when we would use it. If the disease is across 10 to 12 to 14 poultry producing states across the U.S. and we are seeing what we are seeing today, we are probably going to use it in that kind of scenario.”
He said the U.S. is already beginning to work with other countries toward new trade protocols to allow trade to continue between countries where product is produced in disease-free zones in countries where vaccination is employed in a Differentiating Infected from Vaccinated Animals (DIVA) strategy.
“It is going to take time to convince other countries as well as the World Organization for Animal Health where we use vaccines, especially if we have a DIVA strategy, where we can tell the difference between the vaccine and the virus to save birds,” he said.