“While it is extremely important that serious efforts are taken to bring the outbreak in domestic and wild birds under control, the reality of the situation is serious enough that we must be taking more steps to prepare for a possible human outbreak of this virus,” Mr. Krellenstein said in an interview, adding, “We should be viewing this as a live-action fire drill.”
Before Covid-19, many experts predicted that the next pandemic would be caused by influenza. In 2020, the federal Department of Health and Human Services published a 10-year strategy for updating influenza vaccine production; one of the White House officials said the Biden administration was reviewing the document in light of the current outbreak in birds.
One step toward pandemic preparedness, many experts agree, would be a poultry vaccination campaign.
“Just having the virus be less widespread would reduce the exposures to humans,” said Anice C. Lowen, an influenza virologist at Emory University, adding that a vaccination effort “would also reduce the potential for viral evolution” that might enable the virus to spread efficiently from person to person.
Currently, federal regulators have not authorized the vaccination of poultry against highly infectious bird flu strains like H5N1, said Mike Stepien, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department. While there are several licensed vaccines, it is unclear whether any of them are effective against the current strain, he said.
Scientists at the department have been working to develop vaccine candidates in-house, said Erica Spackman, a research microbiologist at the agency’s Agricultural Research Service, who is one of the scientists leading the testing of the poultry vaccines. Dr. Spackman and her colleagues are aiming to test multiple potential vaccines — including those already licensed and the new vaccine candidates — in chickens, turkeys and domestic ducks, she said.
If the existing vaccines prove effective, they could potentially be deployed more quickly than new vaccines. Typically, the approval process for animal vaccines can take up to three years, though Mr. Stepien said that time frame could be shortened in an emergency.
Dr. Spackman estimated that she and her colleagues would probably not have their first set of results ready to share until May. “And then there’s always the issue on the production side of how quickly the company could actually produce and supply the vaccine,” she added.