The White House wants to stop avian influenza by vaccination but, for now at least, it simply cannot.

In March 2023, the New York Times reported the executive branch is considering action to mandate mass vaccination of commercial poultry against highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This comes as the disease continues to take its toll on consumers in the form of sky-high egg prices and present a frightening possibility of more cross-species infections.

The same report said President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign is sweating pressure from inflation, too. An action could show Americans the White House is doing something to stop the disease and its economic effects.  

From a practical standpoint, the U.S. can’t vaccinate its birds right now. HPAI vaccination is not federally authorized and there is no clearly effective vaccine currently available for use against the H5N1 strain of HPAI in the U.S.

HPAI goes global

The current HPAI outbreak, which began in North America the winter of 2021-2022, is the largest in the history of the U.S. It damaged the domestic egg industry and turkey industries. It continues to threaten breeder flocks and other long-lived poultry.

Furthermore, the disease is now a global issue. Migratory birds carry it freely across borders in Asia, Europe and the Americas affecting commercial poultry around the world. Recently, farmers in South America began depopulating flocks in response to outbreaks all over the continent.

Vaccination abroad

In response, vaccination is picking up steam in Europe. In March, the European Union will change its trade rules to allow its member states to vaccinate against HPAI and sell products from vaccinated birds. This is a forerunner to possible other international deals which would allow trading partners to accept vaccinated products. A vaccine is reportedly being tested in France, Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Vaccination is a major stumbling block in international trade since the product will, by definition, have exposure to HPAI. The U.S. broiler industry depends on its export markets. This could become less important, though, as HPAI continues to become a more common problem globally.

Some countries, including Mexico, China, Egypt and Vietnam, already vaccinate commercial birds against HPAI. Significant poultry producers Peru, Colombia and Argentina are mulling vaccination programs, too.

The power of the president

The way-too recent COVID-19 pandemic showed when the impetus and funding are available, a vaccine can be developed and rolled out relatively quickly.

The same report from the New York Times said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service is already developing HPAI vaccines made to combat the current outbreak and it hopes to test them soon. Approving new vaccines for use can take as many as three years, though.

Recent reporting from WATT Global Media indicates vaccination would be two to three years away, if ever pursued in the U.S.

If the Biden Administration wants to press forward with HPAI vaccination, its first move should be to increase the money and research time available for developing an effective vaccine against the H5 strain of the disease.

The COVID experience demonstrated when the political will exists, a vaccine can be developed and rolled out relatively quickly. Will the same thing happen in the commercial poultry industry? Only time can tell.

The most impactful part of a presidential announcement would be a clear signal the U.S. federal government truly intends to roll ahead with national vaccination.

This would set the wheels in motion for hashing out international agreements ahead of any real-world vaccinations. It would also show the political intent of the government to move ahead with vaccination in spite of any hesitation from commercial producers.