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APHIS, NIFA-Funded Research Protecting the Nation’s Poultry Industry

Nifa Author
Margaret Lawrence, Writer-Editor

Americans eat more poultry than any other type of meat protein, and that means poultry production is big business in the United States. In 2020, the total production value of all poultry products topped $35.5 billion, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Recently, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed it has detected Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in multiple states. APHIS has confirmed the disease in commercial broiler and turkey flocks as well as in a backyard flock. Earlier this year, APHIS identified HPAI in migrating waterfowl. Migrating waterfowl such as ducks and geese are the primary reservoir for avian influenza viruses.
 
In 2015, 15 states suffered an HPAI outbreak, and the poultry industry lost more than 51 million chickens and turkeys. Reducing the threat of another large outbreak is crucial to a safe food supply and a stable poultry industry.
 
APHIS works in a variety of ways to protect and improve the health, quality, and marketability of our nation's livestock, including poultry.  Learn how you can help protect both commercial and backyard poultry with APHIS’ Defend the Flock program.
 
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports researchers as they work to find ways to battle HPAI.

Creating Better Vaccines

A University of Minnesota (UM) scientist is working to improve vaccine options for HPAI.  Through her NIFA Hatch-funded research project, Dr. Yuying Liang with the UM College of Veterinary Medicine developed eight vaccine candidates against highly pathogenic H5 and H7 avian influenza viruses. 

Dr. Yuying Liang with the UM College of Veterinary Medicine has developed eight vaccine candidates against highly pathogenic H5 and H7 avian influenza viruses. Photo credit: University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine

 Research has shown that avian influenzas can mutate rapidly, and Liang said that is part of the challenge to creating effective vaccines. “We do not know what strain or mutation of HPAI will appear or when it will appear,” Liang said.  “Existing vaccines are unlikely to be effective in new outbreaks.”
 
She said the key to reducing the spread of an HPAI outbreak is have a targeted vaccine ready to deploy. “Our approach is to use a live viral vector that would cause a strong and broadly protective immune response both in antibodies and T-cells,” she said. “Both are critical in creating a robust immune response.”
 
Free viruses are ready to attack new cells. Antibodies can bind to these free viruses, blocking them from infecting new cells or marking them for cleanup or destruction. Once viruses infect cells, antibodies cannot reach them. T-cells are needed to recognize and kill these virus-infected cells. 

Vaccine Development Status

The eight vaccine candidates are currently being tested on mice. “The job now is to evaluate the efficacy of inducing antibody and T-cell response in a live animal,” said Liang. “We have established the candidates are safe; we see no viral vector shed in the mice.”
 
She said supply chain issues caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic slowed progress. Minnesota has patented the viral vector Liang developed and has licensed it to an international vaccine company.
 
“We were fortunate to receive NIFA funding to jump start our research,” Liang said.  “I believe this work has great potential for advances in both animal and human health.”

Tracking Waterfowl

A team of researchers at the University of California (UC)-Davis, the University of Delaware and the U.S. Geological Survey is creating an interactive web-based tool to help poultry producers better assess their operations’ disease risks from migrating waterfowl. Their work is funded through a five-year Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grant from NIFA.
 

Dr. Maurice Pitesky with the UC-Davis College of Veterinary Medicine is a creating an interactive web-based tool to help poultry producers assess their operations’ disease risks from migrating waterfowl. Photo credit: University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Maurice Pitesky with UC-Davis said the team is developing a predictive waterfowl tracking system in California’s Central Valley as well along the Mid-Atlantic coast. Both areas are home to large commercial poultry populations and are along waterfowl migration routes.
 
“Our current model makes daily predictions on waterfowl density in the Central Valley of California using various types of remote sensing including satellite imagery,” said Pitesky. “We hope to integrate telemetry tagged waterfowl and radar into future models that will also integrate our current surveillance for avian influenza in targeted waterfowl populations and their environment to develop a true risk assessment for poultry farmers. Producers can use the maps to identify the level of disease threat relative to where their farms are located.”
 
View the California Waterfowl Tracker online. 

More than Just Tracking

Now in their second year of funding, the project will reach some important milestones in 2022, according to Pitesky. The Mid-Atlantic tracker (Delaware and North Carolina) will go live in the winter of 2022-2023. Specifically, in November of this year, the project will launch a web application that will notify poultry producers about potential risks through push notifications to their cell phones.
 
“Risk can change from day to day,” Pitesky said. “Producers will be able set their notifications based on their needs and comfort level.”
 
Pitesky, who also has a California Cooperative Extension appointment, said the team will work closely over the coming months with several groups to sign up as many poultry producers as possible for the web app. “We want to create a tool that assesses risk anywhere waterfowl habitat overlaps with commercial poultry operations,” he said. “Our vision is a tool that persists and helps poultry producers long after the grant ends.”

Avian Influenza Focus of Multiple Research Efforts

  • University of Georgia scientists are working to develop a new class of modified live virus vaccines that induce broadly protective immune responses with funding from a multi-year AFRI grant.
  • Researchers in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine are working to deploy and validate cutting-edge tools that can rapidly detect avian influenza in the field. They believe their approach, which is supported by NIFA Hatch capacity funding, can reduce diagnosis from days to hours and can identify the actual detected virus’ threat to animals or humans.
  • A multi-state effort led by the University of Delaware is investigating how the immune system develops to improve animal health. Partner states include Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. The multi-year project funded through NIFA Hatch capacity funding is also looking at the origins and development of avian influenza and other infectious diseases including Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens and coccidiosis.
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