Bird flu vaccines are still a while away

As the latest – and so far limited – bird flu outbreak in South Africa results in more cullings on egg-producing poultry farms, questions are once again being asked about the possibility of a vaccination against the virus.

The answer is that progress is being made in many countries, but an effective vaccine is probably a year or two away. And not all governments are in favour, because vaccinating birds can result in trade bans as difficulties in distinguishing vaccinated chickens from infected ones have yet to be overcome.

That means that, for some time to come, culling will be the only way to stop the spread of the bird flu virus, which has swept across the world over the past year.

For South Africa’s chicken farmers, bird flu is a real threat to their businesses and to the jobs they sustain. Without a vaccine, millions of birds have had to be culled on farms where an outbreak occurs, and on neighbouring farms to prevent the spread of the virus. Unlike other countries, the South African government does not compensate farmers for healthy birds it orders them to cull, so the financial loss is severe.

Pressure for a vaccine is mounting worldwide. The latest push comes from the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) whose director has said a vaccine could prevent bird flu developing into a new global pandemic for humans.

“We are coming out of a COVID crisis where every country realised the hypothesis of a pandemic was real,” WOAH Director General Monique Eloit told Reuters in an interview.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed concern about deaths this year from bird flu. While it is rare for humans to catch the disease, the fatality rate is high.

And experts warn that the virus is changing rapidly, and the increasing number of cases in mammals is a cause for concern.