Unprecedented Avian Flu Outbreak Continues

34:45 minutes

an indoor chicken coop with hundreds of chickens inside
Credit: Shutterstock

Avian influenza has been circulating for decades among wild birds, but the US is now experiencing the worst outbreak in its history. That’s because of a specific strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which has left around 60 millions birdsmostly poultry—dead. This has implications for us all, whether you’re frustrated about the price of eggs, worried about your backyard chickens, or concerned about yet another threat to public health. 

In this live call-in, Ira talks with Ashleigh Blackford, the California Condor Coordinator at the US Fish & Wildlife Service about the initiative to vaccinate California condors—the first of its kind to vaccinate any bird. 

Then Ira explores what this outbreak means for other wildlife, poultry, and for us. He talks with Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, professor and director of the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratories at Colorado State University, and Dr. Richard Webby, director of the WHO’s Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds and a researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Ashleigh Blackford

Ashleigh Blackford is California Condor Coordinator at the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Ventura, California.

Kristy Pabilonia

Dr. Kristy Pabilonia is a professor and Director of Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratories at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Richard Webby

Dr. Richard Webby is Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds and a researcher in the department of Infectious Diseases at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last month, the USDA announced that it will take emergency action to protect the critically endangered California condor from the bird flu, and not just any bird flu, but a specific strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza, the H5N1, that has left millions of birds dead, mostly poultry.

You have seen the egg prices. What is going on here? Why the death of all these birds? Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture at the avian flu, specifically called highly pathogenic H5N1. Why this outbreak is so bad? What can we do about it? Should we be concerned for ourselves? And later, we’ll get into the California condor and talk about why that is an endangered species due to the flu.

So here to talk about all things bird flu are my guests Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, professor and director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Colorado State University– that’s in Fort Collins– Dr. Richard Webby, director of the WHO’s Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds and researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital based in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of you, welcome to Science Friday.



IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Kristy, I feel like I hear about the avian flu every year over and over again, but what’s different about it this time? It seems really worse. Is that correct?

KRISTY PABILONIA: Well, this is the largest outbreak that the US has seen, so currently affecting more than– or close to 60 million poultry. That includes 325 million– or ugh, I’m sorry, 325 commercial flocks and 511 backyard flocks.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I want to let our listeners that if they want to call in and talk about this with us, we’re welcoming you. 844-724-8255. 844-SCI-TALK, talking about the bird flu. Maybe you have questions because there’s a lot to talk about. OK, so there was this big outbreak about 10 years ago, right, though?

KRISTY PABILONIA: There was a large outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus similar to this virus, same lineage, back in 2014, 2015. But that outbreak was mostly detected in commercial poultry and the states and the USDA were able to respond and stamp out or eradicate that virus situation at that time.

IRA FLATOW: Richard, genetically speaking, what’s different about this strain?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so there’s actually quite a few things different. So we’ve just heard this is so not the first time we’ve dealt with this family of viruses. But this particular version of it, from a sort of a virus perspective, it’s picked up a number of different genetic elements, which sort of sets it apart from what was here before. And for reasons we don’t fully understand, these genetic elements have really changed the behavior of this virus, or at least, that’s a hypothesis.

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean by that? Please elaborate on that.

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so, well, it’s at least, from a more American perspective, what we know happened with somewhere in probably the mid 2021, this virus was sort of happily doing its thing over in Europe, Asia, Africa, but it changed form at that stage. So before that time, it was predominantly what we call an H5N8 form. And it switched out that N8 for an N1. This is what flu viruses do. They sort of mix and match all the time. And that changed it. It spread widely through wild birds in Europe, and then that sort of pushed the virus over into our shores.

And when we look at what happened to that virus, getting to your question eventually here, what happened when that pushed it over to our shores, that virus that had been living its life over in Europe all of a sudden started to interact with flu viruses that we have in our part of the world. And so it underwent a process we call reassortment, which if you think about just two viruses infect the same cell, they can mix and match gene segments.

And that’s kind of what happened with this virus when it got to our shores. And so it started to interact with viruses present in wild birds in our part of the world, picked up some of the genes from those viruses. And certainly, when we looked a lot in laboratory studies at the virus that first came over and the virus that has spread subsequently, those viruses actually behaved quite differently in terms of ability to cause disease, et cetera, et cetera. So that’s what I mean by the virus came in, changed genetically, and changed the biology of the virus to some extent.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. Kristy, and this virus now is making its way into mammals. How is that happening?

KRISTY PABILONIA: Yeah, so the virus has been detected, I think, right now in about 18 mammal species in the US, particularly carnivore species like foxes, raccoons, bears, mountain lions, so potentially animals that are getting infected by consuming sick or dead infected birds. We’re also seeing it in marine mammals, such as seals and otters. We know that those species are susceptible to the virus.

IRA FLATOW: And because, Richard, the virus is going from birds to mammals, what does that tell you about the virus?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so why we get a little bit concerned about that when we see these mammal infections is, right now, this is a virus that is still really a bird virus. So it’s really optimized to replicate and transmit in birds. We talked a little bit about these flu viruses can change. And it’s this virus has got to undergo some mutations to switch from being a bird virus to being a mammal virus.

And so what we think is, those changes are not going to happen while this virus is sort of spreading amongst birds. So while it goes bird to bird to bird, there’s no pressure on it to change to be a better mammal virus. But when we see these mammal infections, that’s the environment where we think those key changes are more likely to occur. So from sort of someone who watches these viruses from a human health perspective, when we see mammal infections, that’s when we start to worry because, again, it just gives the virus many, many more opportunities to switch from being a bird virus to being a mammal and eventually a human virus.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that would be my next follow-up question. How worried should we be about it becoming a human virus?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so right now, this is, as I said, still a bird virus. So it is, as a human, it is very, very difficult to catch this virus luckily. And so if you look at the CDC, WHO assesses what the situation is. It is a low risk for humans, and I’m absolutely behind that. Unfortunately, that risk is not static, and it can change over time. But yeah, right now, still mostly bird virus. If you’re a chicken, you’ve got far more to worry about right now than you have if you’re a human.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let me bring in another kind of bird that’s affected. You mentioned chickens, but so far, we know more than 20 California condors have died from the virus. And for a species with fewer than 600 total individuals, that’s critical. So officials are planning to vaccinate. They’re going to vaccinate these vulnerable birds, and that’s the first of any bird in the United States. Here to talk about this and why these birds are getting the jab is Ashleigh Blackford, California condor coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento. Welcome to Science Friday.

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: Well, thank you. It’s so nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. When did you start to get concerned that the condors would be affected by this virus?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: Well, we’ve been watching this virus since the outbreak started of this particular strain in 2022. And we’ve been looking at what kind of steps we could take to up our biosecurity for our field sites, as well as our captive breeding and propagation centers. But we didn’t know whether or not this virus was going to impact California condors, right? Viruses have come through, and sometimes certain species are really susceptible, and sometimes they’re not.

And so it wasn’t until we had the outbreak start in Arizona that we even knew that condors were going to be impacted the way they are and that they would get sick and they would die. So early preparations in 2022, but a whole different take on the situation come March of ’23.

IRA FLATOW: So do you know how the virus is transmitted among the condors?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: No, but California condors are really– they’re cooperative or communal. They feed together. They roost together. And so they are really susceptible of spread. So one condor gets sick, they come to the carcass, and they feed. So their life history is just set up to be a good spreader of disease once they get sick, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, sorry to hear that. Give me the reasoning behind vaccinating them. How does that work?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: Well, so the California condor population is unique in that, unfortunately, because it is so small and it is so highly managed, ultimately, for a situation like this, it sets us up as a really good opportunity to test the vaccine. We typically capture every single individual annually. We do the health checks on them. We put transmitters on them. And this is actually when we do their West Nile vaccine. And so we have the opportunity to continue to monitor our wild birds once we do vaccinate them.

Unfortunately, like you said earlier, our population is just so small, we don’t have the size to allow for this natural evolution, which would be our preference, right? That you would allow the exposure over time, and you would end up with healthier condors at the other side because they had withstood this outbreak and come out on the other side. But we just don’t have the population numbers to go through that natural process, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have to catch every one of the condors and give them a shot basically?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: So, yes. So right now, we’re still in our trials, and so we are testing the vaccine on black vultures to make sure it’s safe and to ensure that they elicit an immune response. Our next stage of the trial will be to vaccinate a subset of captive condors. And if we, again, see that it’s safe and we get a good immune response, then we’ll shift to our wild birds. And yes, and so in which case, we will need to capture each individual and give them a–



IRA FLATOW: These are humongous birds, right?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: They are humongous birds. They have a 9-foot wingspan, a very big bird.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Is everyone in agreement that vaccinating these birds is a good idea? I’ve also heard an argument that it may be better for these flocks to just go through it, and population wise, they’ll be healthier. The strong ones will survive.

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: And yes, that would be a better scenario. Holistically, I think that’s really the most appropriate approach for most wild birds. Like I said, our condor population is just so small. We lost 20% of that Arizona flock in just a month. And that’s not the way we want to be going when we’re running a recovery program. So, yeah, we’re looking to implement additional measures just to see if we can get us through this exposure.

IRA FLATOW: And if things go well, I mean, if the plans work out with the condors and the vaccines help, could this be used for other birds or a wild or a livestock?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: That is not my decision to make. I think like I said, the unique thing about California condors is it is such a small population. We do typically capture each bird every year. And so, we’re set up to be a trial. I think for most other populations, it’s probably not a good fit.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me bring in my other guests, Dr. Kristy Pabilonia and Dr. Richard Webby. Dr. Pabilonia, what do you think of this trial?

KRISTY PABILONIA: I think it’s very interesting. I certainly think that the US needs to be evaluating vaccines and their efficacy potentially for species, like we just talked about. And then also looking at it in commercial poultry, it’s complex. And in any species, you would vaccinate. And it’s certainly complex. The concept of vaccinating is complex for commercial poultry, also.

IRA FLATOW: Why is it so hard to vaccinate commercial poultry?

KRISTY PABILONIA: Well, a number of reasons. So I should start by saying, commercial poultry in the United States, they’re highly vaccinated against a wide variety of bird diseases. So vaccines are commonly used in the commercial poultry industry. The concern about influenza vaccine, there’s a number of them, for example, concern about it impairing the US’s ability for international trade. And the US is one of the largest exporters of poultry products in the world. So for example, we’re the second largest broiler exporter behind Brazil.

Additionally, the commercial poultry industry is very large. And so the vaccine has to be able to be applied to billions of birds. So for example, the US raises 9 billion– that’s billion with a B– broilers. Those are meat type chickens in the United States.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. We’re talking about a lot of birds this hour on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Our number, 844-724-8255. Maybe I can get a quick phone call in before we have to go to the break. Erin in– is it Laporte, Colorado?

ERIN: Yeah, hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

ERIN: I have backyard and front yard geese. They’re domestic geese that mow my lawn and are just generally very entertaining creatures to have around. So this question is at the forefront of my mind. And I’m really curious why songbirds are apparently less susceptible to avian influenza. I’m wondering if this is a more of a behavioral thing, if there’s something different in their physiology from raptors and waterfowl, or if it’s just that we’re not finding them. Geese are hunted, and hunters are out there.

And then another part to this question is what about– so because of the European origin of the virus, are starlings or house sparrows that are often in large flocks, are they more susceptible? And what does that mean when flocks of starlings are around a feedlot, for example, where there are mammals?

IRA FLATOW: Before we run out of time on the break, let me see if I can get an answer. Dr. Webby, can you attack that?

RICHARD WEBBY: I can have a crack at it and then get others’ input. But I think from the perspective of geese, we know they are a susceptible host of this particular virus. So from a risk perspective, they do represent some risk. But typically, when these sorts of birds are infected, there will be some sort of disease signs with them, typically. So if they are healthily wandering around, the risk is probably pretty low– I mean risk in terms of risk to the people around there.

Your point about songbirds, we know not all birds are the same in terms of susceptibility to this flu or any flu. And even within ducks, there are different sorts of ducks that are more susceptible. So my gut feeling is that for songbirds, it’s more of a just intrinsic susceptibility to this virus. And people have looked over the years at these types of birds, the passerine birds, the starlings, et cetera. And they just don’t seem to be really good hosts for flu. So we hope that stays that way.

IRA FLATOW: Is that a genetic thing going on there?

RICHARD WEBBY: Probably. Yeah, probably. And again, there’s probably a number of different thoughts on this, but again, even if we just look at people from different populations of people, there’s different susceptibilities to infectious diseases, including flu. And it’s the same type of thing that’s occurring in birds probably.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Pabilonia, have anything to add?

KRISTY PABILONIA: I thought– yeah, so the only thing I’d probably add is just that we are detecting virus in some of the peridomestic species, so species that do fly around and live around houses and certainly could be around houses where people are raising backyard birds. So such as magpies, crows, a few other species, but as Dr. Webby said, we’re not detecting the virus nearly as much as we are in the natural host species, like waterfowl and shorebirds.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we have to take a break. We will come back and talk lots more about the flu that’s going around in birds. Our number, 844-724-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @SciFri. Lots of questions about– we’ll talk about your backyard feeder, what to do there. What about other birds? You may be raising chickens in your backyard, too. You may have flocks of birds. We’ll answer all those questions and more that you ask. 844-724-8255. See you on the other side of the break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re chatting about the avian flu with Dr. Kristy Pabilonia of Colorado State University, Dr. Richard Webby, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Ashleigh Blackford, California condor coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Our number, 844-724-8255. And we’re talking about all the aspects of the flu. Richard, have there been any cases in people so far?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so there have. If we sort of take a wider step back over the past 25 years or so we’ve been dealing with this, sort of the great, great granddaddies of this particular H5 virus, we’ve seen about a tad under 1,000 infections over that time.

If we sort of hone in a little bit more on this more recent outbreak, so there have been some. There’s been one reported case in the US. This was someone who was actually involved in depopulating a flock of chickens and a little bit of uncertainty about whether that individual was actually infected or was just sort of carrying virus out of the barn on their nose. But South America, there have been a couple of infections with actually pretty severe infections with this virus. So, yeah, it’s a very, very small number. Some of those infections have been severe.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Robert in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hi, Robert. Welcome.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you have to turn your radio down. One of the tenets of talking to a talk show is to turn your radio down because we’re on a 10-second delay. Robert, are you there?


IRA FLATOW: I guess he’s not there, but his question was highly relevant to everybody who’s wondering. What are the best practices for you to do if you’re at a homeowner or you have birds in your backyard or you’re raising chickens? Are there any best practices? What should we be doing? Kristy, can you give us an idea?

KRISTY PABILONIA: Sure. If you’re raising backyard flocks, you now and always want to be really practicing good biosecurity. So those are measures that you’re using to prevent introduction of a pathogen into a population. So measures such as cleaning and disinfection, controlling access, not introducing new groups of birds, those measures are important all the time, but particularly very, very important now.

We’re also recommending to some backyard flock owners about thinking about how to keep their birds enclosed so that they’re really minimizing contact as much as possible with wild birds. That’s very helpful. And then just generally, anything you can do to prevent birds from co-mingling is going to help decrease transmission and spread of this virus.

IRA FLATOW: Richard, as you mentioned earlier, it’s currently pretty unlikely for humans to get infected, but not impossible. What would need to happen for human transmission to become more widespread?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, it’s a great question. And if we think about this, again, from the perspective of the virus, we know there’s about three or four things that this virus has to change to switch from being a bird virus to being a human virus. And these sort of range from the nitty gritty ins and outs of how this virus replicates inside a cell, and it’s different if you’re in a bird cell than in a human cell, through to actually what these viruses bind to on the surface of the cell. So influenza viruses, including this one, bind to sugars on the host cell. But the sugars that are present on, say, a duck cells are a little bit different than those on the human cell.

So this particular virus, one of the things we know it has to change is it has to mutate the part of the virus that binds to that sugar and bind less to the sugar on the avian cell and more to the sugar on the human cell. So there are these molecular markers that we know this virus have to do. And we’re watching very closely for any evidence that they are actually occurring. But luckily, to date, not many of them have been.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s hope our luck holds out. Charity in Walsenburg, Colorado, welcome to Science Friday.

CHARITY: Howdy. Yeah, you’re getting a lot from Colorado today. So I actually have a question and possibly an answer. So they were asking about how to keep your flock safe. I just went through a free range small flock outbreak about a month and a half ago. I have 36 birds. One bird got it super bad, crusty eyes, sniffly noses, everything.

We culled her immediately as soon as we found her, and we actually buried her body because we were concerned about transmission and trans species infection, vector control. And we had one that just kept getting bubbly eye, and I kept treating her and treating her and treating her. And I was like, you know what? It’s not worth it. And before I got to cull her, a bobcat got her. But–

IRA FLATOW: Are these chickens? What kind of birds are we talking?

CHARITY: These are chickens. These are heritage American chickens. I have been raising the same breed of flock with new roosters every couple of years for about 11 years.


CHARITY: And out of that, so I lost two, technically one to a bobcat, one to the flu. Nobody else had any other symptoms, except for one older bird, and she had the loose chicken poo. It kind of looks gross.

IRA FLATOW: Well, [LAUGHS] do you have a question? You told us– yeah.

CHARITY: Yeah, sorry. So my question is the standard protocol is to slaughter all your birds. And I completely disagree with that. I guess in a large factory situation, you’d have to. But I found that not killing all my birds is going to allow my flock to have a strengthened immune system and pass it along to their chicks. So better quarantine, cleaning all your dishes, and I use thyme oil, Osha. And if anybody looks funny, I immediately put them to the side. So I’m wondering if we can reconsider the advice to cull everyone’s flocks rather than do maybe some damage control and isolate because there’s no hope for me locking my birds inside. That’s not going to happen.

IRA FLATOW: Great question. Let me see if I can get an answer. Thanks for calling. Who wants to bring that? Kristy? Richard? Who would like to tackle that one?




IRA FLATOW: Go ahead. Kristy, go ahead.

KRISTY PABILONIA: Sure, so this virus is highly, highly transmissible. So if one bird in a flock gets it, typically, they’re all exposed. They’re all going to get it. And it carries with it very high mortality. So your best line of defense, of course, is reporting, doing diagnostic testing to confirm that it truly is highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.

And then a response is going to be to, as you mentioned, depopulate the flock because we don’t want to risk any birds remaining that would be able to transmit the virus. And then, again, the mortality is so high anyway, when we’ve had backyard flocks get infected, almost all of them, if not all of them, will die of the virus anyway.

IRA FLATOW: Ashleigh, did you want to jump in here?

ASHLEIGH BLACKFORD: So, yeah, this is one of the challenges with the Wild California Condor Program, right, is that without a vaccine, we were looking at what are preventative measures we can take. And so our field crew was collecting birds that looked ill and bringing them in for care. And we’ve been setting up our system to allow for these testing facilities and quarantine facilities. And although, like Kristy said, it’s probably not appropriate if you have condensed poultry situations, but in wild birds, where they’re flying around, and they are so valuable like each California condor is, we are trying to kind of take that intermediate track of quarantining and treatment to the best of our ability. But time will tell if that’s going to be a good technique.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s go back to the phones. So many more questions. Let’s see. And here’s an interesting one from Stu in Tonaset, Washington, is it, Stu?

STU: Tonasket.

IRA FLATOW: I was close. Not really. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

STU: Yeah. I am here in Washington now, but in the winter time, I do a lot of waterfowl hunting down on the Lower Colorado River. And I know that they were testing for avian influenza last year and found it there. So I know it’s there. And in waterfowl hunting, I use retrievers to retrieve the birds. And I’m wondering if their exposure just from retrieving a bird, if there’s any risk involved there to them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, good question. Kristy, what would you think?

KRISTY PABILONIA: So there’s risk for mammals, as Dr. Webby mentioned before. Particularly, this is, right now, mostly a bird virus. But there is potential for mammals to be infected, although I don’t personally know of any dog detections of avian influenza, or of this virus, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s see if I can get Dave in Manchester, Georgia. Hi, Dave. Another interesting question.

STEVE: It’s actually Steve, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there, Steve. Go ahead.

STEVE: Yeah, I’m a falconer. I work with birds of prey, hawks, eagles, and that kind of stuff, and was just interested in your guests’ comments on how it may affect those of us that hunt with birds of prey.

IRA FLATOW: Birds of prey. How is it affecting birds of prey? That’s an interesting question. Richard, do you have any weigh-in on that?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, so we know that birds of prey are susceptible to this virus, and we’ve, unfortunately, seen many of them succumb to it. I guess it depends a lot on, of course, what they’re preying on. If it happens to be they’re preying on a bird that’s heavily infected with this virus, they absolutely can get infected themselves and die. And we’ve seen many examples of this amongst the likes of eagles. So, yeah, there are hosts we know can get infected. Yeah, so I guess if the question is, are they susceptible? Absolutely. And yeah, if they happen to be feeding on something that’s sick, they are likely to get it themselves.

IRA FLATOW: What about backyard feeders, Richard? Should we just not do that any more until this is gone?

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, again, I think as I said, the risk is low. So probably the risk from a backyard feeder is–

IRA FLATOW: Well, what about spreading it from bird to bird that share the feeder? Is there any–

RICHARD WEBBY: Yeah, well, it’s potentially, but again, coming back to the fact, which are the birds that are most susceptible to this, probably not the ones that are going to be on your average feeder in the backyard. So yes, it probably increased the risk a little bit, but from my perspective, it’s not a real risk connectively.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Nina in Spring, Texas. Hi, Nina. Nina, are you there?

NINA: Yes, I am. Can you hear me all right?

IRA FLATOW: I can hear you now. Please, go ahead.

NINA: Greetings to you all. I am wondering. There has not yet been any discussion of something more simply preventative, and I was looking online while waiting to talk to you. How about for the birds that are held in captivity, how about fortifying their food? No one’s mentioned that for the preventative side of things. I’m hearing that green tea works. I mean, I do for my human body, and I’m doing rather well. Rather than the after-effects of vaccination and all this stuff, why not a preventative in the food?

IRA FLATOW: OK, Kristy, can you comment on that?

KRISTY PABILONIA: So there’s no research that I know of that would talk about anything like that like green tea or some sort of supplement that would prevent any avian influenza infection. I mean, again, this is a really transmissible, very terrible virus with a very high mortality.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Kristy, can there be, is there any plan to vaccinate poultry? Can you do it not just the condors, but billions of birds?

KRISTY PABILONIA: So can it be done? Yes, and I know there are a lot of scientists and government agencies working on developing vaccines and evaluating efficacy and safety. So it goes back to the question of should we do it. So what’s our best tactic at addressing the outbreaks that we’re seeing now in commercial poultry and even in wild birds, right?

And there’s probably different answers based on different animal species, different sectors of the market. But it’s something that I know the USDA is really looking closely at right now and trying to determine what’s the best course of action. In the past, our response has always been stamping out or de-population, so it is a change of our past efforts.

IRA FLATOW: Now I always talk about following the money. And one of the money things we’ve seen is the huge increase in the price of eggs. But here’s the second half of this question. I have not seen that in the price of chicken parts, poultry parts. Why is that?

KRISTY PABILONIA: So part of that is just where we’re seeing the virus and what sectors we’re seeing the virus in. Egg layers have been widely affected. For example, in my state, we had outbreaks in nearly all of our egg laying operations with just a few month time span, affected more than 6 million commercial layers. So that really decimated egg production in Colorado. And it was really hard to buy eggs at the grocery stores here in Colorado for a number of months.

The virus is being seen more in the northern parts of the US, and part of that’s due to migratory waterfowl flyways and where birds are co-mingling and fewer detections down, for example, in the Southern states. And it’s in the Southern states where we tend to raise a lot of broilers, so those are the meat type birds where you’re buying meat parts, like you mentioned, at the grocery store.

IRA FLATOW: And how do you keep track of this outbreak? I mean, how do you monitor it?

KRISTY PABILONIA: So there’s a network of labs called the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, which is under the United States Department of Agriculture. So it’s a bunch of state and university labs that are doing surveillance across the US. And that early detection is just really important for detecting the virus and knowing where it’s at in bird and mammal populations. We’ve got over 60 known labs looking for the virus.

And then, of course, there’s lots of other groups doing diagnostic testing. So that’s how we’re monitoring the virus. You can actually go on the USDA’s website, and there’s lots of information that’s current and up to date about where the virus is being detected in both commercial poultry, wild birds, backyard poultry, and mammals.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, very interesting. And we have run out of time. So many questions. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, professor and director of the Veterinary Diagnostics Lab. That’s at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Dr. Richard Webby, director of the WHO’s Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds and a researcher at St. Jude’s in Memphis, Tennessee. Ashleigh Blackford, California condor coordinator at the US Fish and Wildlife Service based in Sacramento. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.



IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.


IRA FLATOW: One last thing before we go, astronomer Owen Gingerich passed away last month. He had been Professor Emeritus of Astronomy of the History of Science at Harvard, along with being a Senior Astronomer Emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He was a very visible scientist. He was eager to talk about his belief that science and God were not mutually exclusive. And he spoke with me in 2006 about integrating science and religion in his latest book, God’s Universe.

OWEN GINGERICH: We’re looking for a kind of middle road between two fundamental extremes. You can have fundamentalist scientists who are so absolutely sure they understand it all and who are hardcore atheists, and you can have fundamentalists on the religious side who are prepared to take a literalist reading of the scriptures that has not been borne out historically. And it was for these people who are open minded and willing to think about these questions, not from an extreme viewpoint, that I’ve written my book for. There needs to be a kind of a middle voice in this. And I’ve tried to represent that.

IRA FLATOW: Owen Gingerich passed away at 93. And that wraps up this week. If you missed any part of the program or you’d like to hear it again, subscribe to our podcasts, or ask your smart speaker to play Science Friday. And of course, you can contact us all week on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Or if you like, you can email us the classic way, scifri@sciencefriday.com. Send us feedback. Tell us what you’d like us to cover. Have a great holiday weekend. We’ll see you next week. I’m Ira Flatow.

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