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Avian flu vaccine waiting on federal approval

AMES, Iowa – High pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza has so far cost Iowa’s egg producers more than 40 percent of the laying flock. Egg prices are rising, as nearly 23 million birds of the roughly 32 million that have been affected nationwide are Iowa layers, and the disease is still spreading.

But researchers at Harrisvaccines in Ames have developed a vaccine for H5N2 avian influenza. Founder and CEO Hank Harris says federal approval is all that’s needed now.

“We started about three weeks ago, and we already have vaccine prepared,” Harris says. “It’s going to be evaluated at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory here in Ames, and quite possibly at the [Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory] in Georgia,” a process Harris expects to take between six and eight weeks.

Harrisvaccines is uniquely well-suited to develop an H5N2 vaccine; not only is it geographically near the USDA testing facility in Ames, but its business model is well-geared to defeat foreign viruses. Usually that means diseases that are not present in the United States, like foot and mouth disease. By taking advantage of public domain gene sequences, Harrisvaccines is able to accelerate the conventional development time.

The avian flu vaccine needs to be injected into muscle, but also works on day-old chicks, and even eggs. Even on a farm with millions of layer hens, injecting is a viable option for layers, which take longer to mature than broiler chickens, which are raised for meat.

Harris says injections will be especially important later this year once repopulation efforts are underway. “People are hoping that with warm weather, that the virus decreases,” he says, “but what the producers are concerned about is when they restock these places, particularly in the fall, that it may reoccur, and so that’s when we think they should be vaccinating them.”

And Harris doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. “It tends to be,” he says, “that once a particular strain of a flu virus enters the United States, it’s usually here to stay.”

To hear more about the avian flu vaccine, click the audio player above this story.