Gelb Testifies on Avian Flu in Nation’s Capitol

Jack Gelb testifies in front of congress on avian influenzaOn Wednesday, July 8, Jack Gelb, professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences and director of the Avian Bioscience Center (ABC) at the University of Delaware, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C. as part of an expert panel addressing the current H5N2 avian influenza (AI) outbreak that has occurred this winter and spring in some Western and Midwestern states.

Other panel members included John Clifford, chief veterinary officer for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Christopher Currie, director of the Emergency Management and National Preparedness Issues for the Government Accountability Office, and Scott Schneider, president of the Wisconsin Poultry and Egg Industries Association.

Below is an interview with Gelb.

Why was it important to testify about AI?

We have in depth experience in Delaware dealing with avian flu both in our research and through actual experience in a real world outbreak. It is important to do these things for the greater good and it was an honor to have the opportunity to testify.

How was your testimony made possible?

I testified at the invitation of U.S. Senator Tom Carper, the ranking member of the Committee. The Senator wanted me to share the perspective and experience that we in Delaware have on controlling avian influenza in poultry, based on the very successful outcome to controlling the disease we had here in 2004. Members of the Senator’s staff had been in contact with me for about a month or so before the D.C. hearing.

I have known Senator Carper for quite a number of years. He has long been a champion of Delaware agriculture and supportive of the University’s role. Last spring, Senator Carper and I were among the speakers at the open house following the $4 million renovation of UD’s Lasher Lab at the Georgetown campus. He heard my perspective on avian flu and I think that’s how he got the idea to invite me.

Senator Carper introduced me at the hearing. He made very thoughtful remarks about the economic and dietary importance of poultry in Delaware, the United States and in the many countries that receive our poultry exports.

How is UD prepared if an AI outbreak happens in the Delmarva region?

We at UD have close working partnerships with others in the state including Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee and State Veterinarian Heather Hirst and their team at the Delaware Department of Agriculture. UD outreach faculty and Extension staff regularly meet with poultry farmers and health experts of the poultry production companies. All are committed to keeping Delaware poultry free from avian flu.

We are exceedingly fortunate to have facilities at UD that are among the very best in the world. The Charles C. Allen Jr. Biotechnology Laboratory in Newark is one of a handful of facilities across the globe where faculty can perform research on high path avian flu, to understand how the virus causes the disease and ultimately, how to prevent or better control it. The newly renovated Lasher Lab is on the front lines of the avian flu battle in the heart of Sussex County. Lasher Lab now contains a new, secure biocontainment suite specifically for detection of AI virus in specimens from suspect poultry flocks.

Our two UD poultry labs in Newark and Georgetown are part of a much larger network called the USDA’s National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN). We just achieved an elevated ranking in the NAHLN earlier this year, which is a testament to our facilities and our outstanding lab staff.

But the farmers have the most important role of all in the AI fight. They have to recognize that there’s a problem right away. Maybe their flock’s mortality rate is higher than normal and perhaps drinking water or feed consumption is off. Farmers know their poultry, their behavior and they can tell, when their flocks are not “acting right.” So a farmer needs to report a problem immediately and then that triggers samples coming to the lab for testing. That’s when we at UD really come into the picture for the first time. UD faculty and staff also provide important advisory and training support in order to contain AI on a farm so it does not spread to other farms.

How long does it take to process a test sample?

It only takes about three hours to have an answer on a test sample. Farmers and poultry company personnel are trained to take what amounts to throat swabs. The swabs will then be sent immediately to the Lasher Lab where they will be tested using a procedure called real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). UD was one of the first labs in the world to use PCR in an outbreak and the very rapid turnaround time proved to be a key in controlling the AI outbreak here in 2004. An AI positive test finding by the lab would trigger in Delaware a carefully scripted response plan designed to minimize transmission of the disease to other farms.

Article by Adam Thomas