Minnesota officials have confirmed four more cases of a bird flu strain that has already cost the state's turkey producers over 1.6 million birds. The development comes as Dr. John Clifford, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief veterinary officer, said the nation's poultry industry may have to live with the H5N2 bird flu strain, which is deadly to poultry, for several years.
The affected farms include one in Minnesota's Roseau County, the northernmost detection of the H5N2 virus in the state so far. That farm had 26,000 turkeys. They also include the first detection in Otter Tail County of western Minnesota, a 21,000 turkey operation. New cases were also reported at farms in hard-hit Stearns and Kandiyohi counties, with 67,000 and 152,000 turkeys respectively.
Minnesota has been hit the hardest by the outbreak, which has cost Midwest producers over 2 million turkeys and chickens since early March. So far, 26 turkey farms in the state have been affected.
Since the beginning of the year the flu, which can kill nearly an entire flock within 48 hours, has been found in commercial poultry operations and backyard poultry flocks in 11 states stretching from Oregon to Arkansas.
Clifford, speaking during a visit to Minnesota, also said that while new cases of the bird flu strain should drop to close to zero once the weather warms up and kills off the virus, there's "very likely" to be a resurgence this fall when the waterfowl that are natural carriers of avian influenza fly south for the winter, calling such a scenario "devastating."
Clifford said the fact that the H5N2 virus has already appeared as far east as southern Ontario means there's an uncomfortable risk of it spreading to the East Coast in states such as Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland, where much of the U.S. broiler chicken industry which produces chickens for meat, is based.
"If it sticks around and continues, it's going to be very devastating to our poultry industry and our international markets, trade markets, as well as the loss domestically," Clifford told The Associated Press. "That's why we have to really use this time appropriately to do all that we can to determine how best we can address and prevent introductions in the future."
Experts say they believe Minnesota is the epicenter because it's the top turkey producing state — raising around 46 million turkeys a year — and its thousands of lakes and wetlands naturally attract large numbers of migrating ducks, bringing H5N2 to Minnesota and other Midwestern states.
Turkeys are most susceptible, but chickens also die from the virus. While waterfowl can carry avian influenza viruses and spread them through their droppings and oral secretions, they don't usually become sick from them.
The USDA has sent about 60 people to Minnesota to reinforce the state's response. State officials have asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ensure that enough funding remains available.
Clifford, meanwhile, estimated that the USDA has already spent $20 million to $30 million to reimburse farmers for birds that were euthanized and on other costs. He also said Vilsack has the authority to provide additional emergency funding, and it's been requested as the agency gears up for a new round this fall.
Clifford told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that it costs an average of $2 million to euthanize a flock. The process, according to the Tribune, involves composting of the birds with wood chips and manure for a period of 28 days which helps kills the virus, according to experts.
While no human cases of the flu have been detected, the discoveries have prompted major overseas buyers, including China and Mexico, to restrict imports of U.S. poultry and eggs.
In total, around 40 countries have imposed bans on importing turkeys from Minnesota, dealing a significant blow to both the turkey and chicken industries, which combined export more than $5 billion worth of products annually.
"We've already lost hundreds of millions of dollars in those markets," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services