A highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza (AI) has spread to nearly 60 countries over the past few years, killing millions of birds and more than 170 humans. Controlling the virus in poultry is key to reducing the risk of a human pandemic. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for planning for AI outbreaks in poultry, with states' assistance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for coordinating the federal response for certain emergencies and developing policy documents that serve as a basis for national emergency planning. GAO described the steps USDA is taking to prepare for highly pathogenic AI and identified key challenges. GAO reviewed response plans, statutes, and regulations; visited poultry operations; interviewed federal, state, and industry officials in five states that experienced outbreaks; and reviewed 19 state plans.
USDA is taking important steps to prepare for highly pathogenic AI. For example, the department has established mechanisms to prevent infected poultry and products from being imported and has developed several surveillance programs to detect AI. In addition, USDA is developing response plans specific to highly pathogenic AI and has begun conducting exercises to test these plans. Moreover, USDA is building a National Veterinary Stockpile to maintain critical supplies, including equipment to protect responders. Finally, USDA has launched various AI research projects, including one to explore why the virus causes disease and death in some domestic poultry and wild birds but not in others. While USDA has made important strides, incomplete planning at the federal and state levels, as well as several unresolved issues, could slow response. First, USDA is not planning for the lead coordinating role that DHS would assume if an outbreak among poultry occurred that is sufficient in scope to warrant various federal disaster declarations. GAO's prior work has shown that roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined and understood to facilitate rapid and effective decision making. Moreover, USDA response plans do not identify the capabilities needed to carry out the critical tasks associated with an outbreak scenario--that is, the entities responsible for carrying them out, the resources needed, and the provider of those resources. Furthermore, some state plans lack important components that could facilitate rapid AI containment, which is problematic because states typically lead initial response efforts. Finally, there are several unresolved issues that, absent advance consideration, could hinder response. For example, controlling an outbreak among birds raised in backyards, such as for hobby, remains particularly difficult because federal and state officials generally do not know the numbers and locations of these birds. In addition, USDA has not estimated the amount of antiviral medication that it would need during an outbreak or resolved how to provide such supplies in a timely manner. According to federal guidance, poultry workers responding to an outbreak of highly pathogenic AI should take antiviral medication to protect them from infection.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Homeland Security||1. To address challenges that limit the nation's ability to quickly and effectively respond to highly pathogenic AI, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Homeland Security should develop a memorandum of understanding that describes how USDA and DHS will work together in the event of a declared presidential emergency or major disaster, or an Incident of National Significance, and test the effectiveness of this coordination during exercises.|
|Department of Agriculture||2. To address challenges that limit the nation's ability to quickly and effectively respond to highly pathogenic AI, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Homeland Security should develop a memorandum of understanding that describes how USDA and DHS will work together in the event of a declared presidential emergency or major disaster, or an Incident of National Significance, and test the effectiveness of this coordination during exercises.|
|Department of Agriculture||3. The Secretary of Agriculture should, in consultation with other federal agencies, states, and the poultry industry, identify the capabilities necessary to respond to a probable scenario(s) for an outbreak of highly pathogenic AI.|
|Department of Agriculture||4. The Secretary of Agriculture should use this information to develop a response plan that identifies the critical tasks for responding to the selected outbreak scenario and, for each task, identifies the responsible entities, the location of resources needed, time frames, and completion status.|
|Department of Agriculture||5. The Secretary of Agriculture should test these capabilities in ongoing exercises to identify gaps and ways to overcome those gaps.|
|Department of Agriculture||6. The Secretary of Agriculture should develop standard criteria for the components of state response plans for highly pathogenic AI, enabling states to develop more complete plans and enabling USDA officials to more effectively review them.|
|Department of Agriculture||7. The Secretary of Agriculture should focus additional work with states on how to overcome potential problems associated with unresolved issues, such as the difficulty in locating backyard birds and disposing of carcasses and materials.|
|Department of Agriculture||8. The Secretary of Agriculture should determine the amount of antiviral medication that USDA would need in order to protect animal health responders, given various highly pathogenic AI scenarios.|
|Department of Agriculture||9. The Secretary of Agriculture should determine how to obtain and provide supplies within 24 hours of an outbreak.|