Lack of bird flu research should make you queasy



I was down with a touch of the flu before Christmas for a week. My book editor asked if I would like to read a tome about flu, and I told her only if it were written by Dave Barry, the funny man from the Miami Herald. She sent me a book by John M. Barry, not Dave, entitled The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Penguin-Random House). I already had the stuffings flushed out of me earlier that week but this book would have done the trick in scaring it out of me.

John Barry is not as funny as Dave. Sober as a judge when contemplating an H1N1 swine flu outbreak nearly nine years ago.

“Both biology and history say it is highly likely — I think it is virtually certain — that we will experience a pandemic that makes, most likely, 20-40 percent of the entire population sick,” John Barry wrote in August 2009. Morbidity rates from the 1918 pandemic ranged from 15% to 53% in 11 surveyed cities. Our treatment capacity would be overwhelmed today despite advances in medicine over the past century.

Barry has served as an advisor to national scientific panels on influenza. He reports:

“The most important tool by far is a vaccine. Had influenza been taken seriously over the past 20 to 30 years we might very well now have a vaccine that works against all influenza viruses. Enough work has been done on this to suggest it’s possible, but few resources have gone into it until recently.”

He was writing about human application. We have been arguing for better research into livestock vaccines since a 2015 avian flu killed seven million birds in Buena Vista County — laying hens and brooders, and turkeys. Rembrandt Foods, which was devastated by the flu that swept down from Minnesota that spring, sought to vaccinate all its chickens but USDA will not allow it for fear of upsetting export markets in broilers. What was then HarrisVaccines (now Merck) was approved to stockpile emergency vaccines for that flu, but they were not allowed to be used.

That sort of government action does not tend to promote investment in private research.

Federal funding for poultry research was $50 million in 2015 and has not been raised since because of the idiotic budget sequestration cooked up by Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell. Now comes the Trump Administration USDA budget that shows no line item for avian flu or poultry research. It suggests a 33% cut in federal research into livestock disease. The budget does allow $30 million for payments for producers should another epidemic hit, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions actually lost just in BV County, not considering Minnesota or South Dakota. The economic impact estimate in 2015 was $1.3 billion in Iowa but that did not factor in two years of recovery costs in Rembrandt and at the Storm Lake Tyson turkey complex, or all the other regional producers that were impacted.

There were a couple flu outbreaks in turkey operations in Indiana and Kentucky last year. They were contained without vaccination.

The General Accounting Office reported this year that the USDA has not been able to fully prepare or respond to another outbreak because of factors largely outside its control — lack of knowledge and resources being chief among them. The main reactions by federal officials were to double down on biosecurity (Rembrandt Foods was tripling or quadrupling down on it when the disaster wave hit) and quickly clearing operations when a flu does express itself.

When livestock is concentrated as it is around Buena Vista County influenza poses a threat to our entire economy and, more important, human health. We know that all flus start with birds, as Barry points out. It is not clear at all to me, based on USDA reporting, that the 2015 flu was spread by waterfowl. A single chickadee was found in Minnesota with that strain of the virus. Meanwhile, outdoor chicken flocks around Storm Lake showed no signs of flu while confined birds were dropping all around them. We still don’t know how the flu got inside. We are counting on industry, mainly, to handle it.

We also know that avian flu mutates into swine flu and human flu.

Barry tells me that from 1959 to 1997 two cases of avian flu were reported to have infected humans. Neither died. From 2003 to 2017, 2,300 human infections were reported from either the H5N1 or H7N9 viruses — 45% of whom died. (The H5N2 virus infected Buena Vista County.)

We have no idea how that flu impacted, or still may impact, human health as it mutates among livestock. If we were not reducing budgets at Iowa State University and the National Animal Disease Lab in Ames, we might be finding solutions that can allow our existing production systems to operate safely, for livestock and humans. What little hope we have is in the fact that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is a veterinarian and should understand the gravity of influenza and the paucity of research. And, last month he cut the ribbon on a new poultry research center in his home state of Georgia. They should get some money to run the place, you would think. (This also illustrates the piecemeal approach to research: Much of the innovation and scientific cluster is in Ames, but the money is flowing to Georgia.)

If we don’t properly fund research, the entire poultry and pork confined feeding system, already under tremendous pressure from animal rights groups, will be further called into question. There is no doubt that confinement festers the spread of disease in herd and herdsman.

Our economy cannot absorb another shock like 2015. At least producers were able to insure against some of the loss and get some indemnity payments from the government to cushion the blow. But there is no insurance policy for a 1918-like pandemic that Barry suggests. Storm Lake could be ground zero, and the human consequences make me want to go back under the covers.