Avian influenza led to the deaths of about 8 million U.S. turkeys in 2022. (Scott Bauer/Agriculture Research Service, USDA)
A Brookings company hopes a flu vaccine for turkeys might eventually help protect multiple species from Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza strains like H5N1, which has wreaked havoc on the poultry industry for the past two years.
The cost of vaccination and concerns about trade implications with foreign customers have thus far held off the use of vaccinations for chickens in the U.S., but animal science company Medgene sees a path forward that starts with turkeys.
A “vaccine platform” is a technology for producing vaccines that can be used to swiftly update the drugs for new variants. Medgene’s vaccine platform already has approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is used to make vaccines for swine.
New vaccines created through pre-approved platforms do not need another round of USDA review. That means that an effective bird flu vaccine for turkeys built through its platform would position Medgene to rapidly update it for use in H5N1 variants, should the USDA choose to fold vaccination into its response to the disease — a move that would break USDA international trade agreements and force renegotiation.
“Our platform technology allows our influenza vaccine for swine to be adopted to address influenza in turkeys as well as the H5N1 variant in all birds,” Medgene Chief Technology Officer Alan Young wrote in a recent news release.
Vaccines in review
The USDA is currently testing two vaccines for bird flu, and a few other bird flu vaccines were built and shipped but never used in 2014.
The other options up for consideration now are not platform-based, Young told South Dakota Searchlight, so each would require 12-18 months of testing.
Medgene is the only company with a platform-based vaccine in the works.
In an interview with South Dakota Searchlight, Medgene CEO Mark Luecke said starting with turkeys is a sensible choice, since most turkeys produced in the U.S. are consumed in the U.S. That reality would let turkey producers sidestep the trade implications that arise when livestock raised with the help of U.S. vaccines cross international borders. On the budget side, the size and growth cycles of the larger birds could make vaccination more economically viable than it would be for millions of chickens.
For chickens, it’s made more sense financially to kill off sick birds than to vaccinate them, in part because the USDA covers the cost.
“If we wanted to vaccinate (chickens), it would be massive amounts of labor,” said Young, who is also an animal disease professor at South Dakota State University. “And by depopulation, you’re only setting yourself back a matter of weeks because they’re not terribly long-lived animals.”
The math may be different for turkey producers in places like Beadle County, which just this month saw another outbreak of avian flu in its barns that affected more than 75,000 birds.
Luecke said the company could collect and “bank” emergent or localized strains of bird flu, then pull those strains to update its vaccines as needed.
“Once we have turkeys approved, as you would expect, it’s a very short step for us to go into layers and broilers – if the USDA decides that that’s the direction that they want to move,” Luecke said.
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Bird flu impact
Medgene was founded in 2011. The first seven years laid the groundwork for a ramp-up of activity in 2018. The company went from four employees at the start to 75 now, producing a host of medicines for livestock and companion animals.
Medgene built vaccines for COVID in pets in 2020 and produced what it described as the only vaccine against rabbit hemorrhagic disease in 2021.
Between the company’s launch and today, there have been multiple bird flu outbreaks. Vaccines are now part of a far-reaching conversation at the USDA about how to respond to the next outbreak, in part due to the intensity of the latest one.
Strains of H5N1 have decimated backyard and commercial flocks in an ongoing, multi-year outbreak that’s the deadliest in history. Wild birds have carried the virus across migratory routes, helping its spread.
Dakota Layers, a Flandreau-based company that’s one of the largest egg producers in South Dakota, had to kill off 1.35 million hens in December.
Consumers have felt the impact nationwide, as well, with egg prices driven up as high as 70% year-over-year in early 2022.
Egg prices have cratered at historic speeds in recent weeks, however, through improving bird flu conditions and increased stockpiles for producers.
The USDA is working to craft an official response plan to address future outbreaks, and fast-track testing for vaccines is on the table, particularly after a third human being died this month in China from H5N1 bird flu.
The USDA is also considering disease tracking, international trade monitoring, flock owner education and indemnity payments for producers.
Brookings response, uncertain future
Medgene, meanwhile, will launch its six-week study for its platform-based vaccine next month.
The question of whether poultry industry players who do business internationally would be willing to adopt vaccines is wide open. Varying rules, regulations, drug approval schemes and consumer sentiments complicate the rollout of any ag tech, according to Matthew Elliott, an agribusiness expert with SDSU Extension.
“There are enormous complications in ag related to these new technologies,” Elliott said. “The general notion on any vaccine is that it could raise complications on exports of meats in foreign countries.”
It’s a consideration for both crops and livestock, and one that can keep the use of effective biotech from widespread adoption.
About half of U.S. wheat is sold overseas, for example, often in countries that reject genetically modified foods. That means, Elliot said, that even though herbicide-resistant varieties of wheat are available, “nobody uses it.”
Europe’s opposition to genetically modified crops has been the topic of intense debate over the past two decades, and concerns about their alleged health or environmental impacts still affect international trade discussions. Chinese trade discussions also factor in biotech.
“Sometimes there are good reasons, sometimes it’s just more protectionist,” Elliot said.
The ball is in the USDA’s court regarding H5N1 vaccines for poultry. Trade concerns have long been a factor in discussions of bird flu response, but the intensity, cross-species impact and geographic reach of the latest outbreak has led to reconsideration.
Previous outbreaks have flared up regionally and dissipated, Young told South Dakota Searchlight.
“This does not seem to be disappearing,” said Young, Medgene’s technology officer. “The fact that it’s in the wild birds makes it very, very difficult to eradicate.”
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