At a production facility in Lenexa, Kansas, French animal health company Ceva Santé Animale makes up to 400 million doses a year of a vaccine that prevents chickens from contracting the deadly bird flu. But not one of those doses — or those of any other company making a vaccine targeting avian flu — will be used to inoculate chickens in the United States. Instead, Ceva, which is privately held, ships the vaccines abroad, to Egypt, Mexico and the United States. other.

Avian influenza, which made waves in the US poultry industry in 2014 and 2015, is back. The current strain, known as H5N1, has devastated US poultry since early last year, infecting more than 800 poultry flocks and wiping out nearly Nearly 60 million chickens and other birds (about 10 million more than occurred during the last round of infections). For American consumers, the impact has been felt in the grocery aisle, where the average price of eggs has more than doubled since the start of 2022.

From an industry perspective, the impact has been relatively contained — at least for now. The majority of culled birds were owned by large privately owned commercial egg farms. Cal-Maine Foods (Stock ticker: CALM), the largest producer of eggs in the United States, says its farms are not affected. (In fact, the company is enjoying a banner year, reporting quarterly earnings of $6.62 per diluted share in March, up from $0.81 in the same quarter a year ago, an improvement driven in part by higher egg prices and demand.) , better known as broiler chickens, has been largely spared.

A sharp rise in egg prices — and concerns about allowing the virus, which has spread in very rare cases from birds to humans, to gain a foothold — has fueled a debate about whether the United States should embrace the H5N1 poultry vaccination campaign. At this point, such a move seems, at best, far-fetched. Despite press reports in early March that the Biden administration was considering vaccination efforts, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said barons, “Currently, we are focused on promoting and enhancing high-impact biosafety practices and procedures.”

But the full impact of the H5N1 virus, which scientists say may already be endemic in bird populations in the United States — meaning it will reappear more regularly — has yet to be seen. If the virus persists, strikes hard this spring, and perhaps begins to affect more birds, the pressure to vaccinate could heat up quickly. This will have major implications for producers of chicken and other fowl, not to mention the animal health actors that manufacture and distribute vaccines.

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“Once it reaches that endemic stage, it makes a lot of sense to get vaccinated,” says Dr. Carol Cardona, a professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota. “Once you realize it’s going to come back and come back and come back, the cost of treating it as an outbreak each time, as something you can eliminate becomes less attractive.”

The move to vaccinate U.S. birds could run into several obstacles, including the fact that most of the poultry industry would oppose it. The United States is one of the largest poultry exporters in the world. The country will export $6 billion worth of poultry meat in 2022. Producers fear that other countries will stop importing US chicken meat over concerns that vaccination could mask infection.

These fears come from experience. In 2014 and 2015, when an earlier strain of H5N1 forced farmers to exterminate 50 million birds—mostly turkeys and egg dishes—more than 50 countries imposed trade restrictions on all types of poultry in the United States. Chicken meat exports fell by $1.1 billion in 2015, according to a report from the US Department of Agriculture, even though the virus escaped almost entirely from broiler flocks.

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So far, the United States has been able to convince trading partners not to impose these kinds of blanket bans during the current outbreak. (Some countries have imposed import restrictions at the provincial or state level.) But since no other major poultry exporter has vaccinated its birds against H5N1, choosing to go this route will almost certainly set importers back.

If the government decides that some level of H5N1 vaccination is necessary, the next challenge will be to protect birds from the current strain of the virus. The USDA is set to begin a trial of its avian flu vaccine this month, with initial data available in May and full data from the two-dose challenge trial in June. A USDA spokesperson says the agency will test four vaccine candidates. One of those is an H5N1 vaccine developed by the company in 2015, said an official at animal health company Zoetis (ZTS); Details about the other three candidates have not been disclosed.

If one or more of the vaccines is effective, a USDA spokesperson says the agency will find manufacturers willing to produce them and move forward with the process of getting them approved, which can take up to three years — though, in “emergency situations.” It may be expedited.

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Zoetis says he is currently working to determine the efficacy of the vaccine now being tested by the USDA against the current strain. Another bird flu vaccine, Zoetis, which targets a different strain, is being used in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Outside the United States, Dutch scientists said in mid-March that tests of an avian influenza vaccine from Ceva and one from private German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim found both to be “100 percent effective in preventing disease and mortality” in a small number of post-infected laying hens. . with H5N1.

The Ceva vaccine is not specific for H5N1 but targets all H5 viruses instead. “We have an effective vaccine,” says John El-Atrash, global director of science and investigations at Ceva. “It exists.”

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If US authorities settle on a vaccine, the next question will be which birds to vaccinate. Breeding turkeys are a likely choice; They were particularly vulnerable to the virus, and there are relatively few of them. Among chickens, potential targets would be laying hens, as they live longer and are more susceptible to infection than broilers.

Layers are usually vaccinated against other diseases as are the chicks. Cardona says the campaign targeting mature birds will be a complex undertaking. “Every time someone enters a barn, there is danger [of transmitting infection]So, rather than vaccinating adult chickens, Cardona advocates vaccinating young chicks before bringing them to the facility where they lay eggs. That would make achieving a normal, fully vaccinated farm a two- or three-year process.

Another possible complication is that some avian influenza vaccines, including Ceva, are made using live turkey herpes virus. The same backbone is used in other vaccines that have already been given to multiple chickens, but an individual chicken can only receive a single turkey herpes virus-based vaccine. If Ceva vaccine is given to US chickens, another vaccine should be substituted with an alternative.

For vaccine makers, the H5N1 vaccination campaign is not likely to have significant revenue implications, since chicken vaccines can cost less than a penny per dose. “This is not an opportunity for any animal health company that will change the company’s revenue trajectory,” says Kristin Beck, CEO of Zoetis. “We’re going to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

However, animal health companies do not ignore this opportunity. In addition to Zoetis, Ceva, and Boehringer Ingelheim,

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MRK also said its animal health division has a “comprehensive and ongoing research program” focused on avian influenza.

At the moment, the question of vaccination remains unresolved. At a Senate hearing on March 16, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers not to expect an answer anytime soon. “We are very far from having an effective vaccine, very far from having one that the rest of the world will accept,” he said.

However, for scientists, this spring — a season when bird flu outbreaks are typical — will be an important test.

“When I look at the situation,” Cardona says, “I think we need to look at vaccination.”

Write to Josh Nathan Kazis at [email protected]

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