CDC has 1 million bird flu tests ready, but experts see repeat of COVID missteps

It’s been nearly three months since the U.S. government announced an outbreak of the bird flu virus on dairy farms. The World Health Organization considers the virus a public health concern because of its potential to cause a pandemic, yet the U.S. has tested only about 45 people across the country.

“We’re flying blind,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health. With so few tests run, she said, it’s impossible to know how many farmworkers have been infected, or how serious the disease is. A lack of testing means the country might not notice if the virus begins to spread between people — the gateway to another pandemic.

“We’d like to be doing more testing. There’s no doubt about that,” said Nirav Shah, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s bird flu test is the only one the Food and Drug Administration has authorized for use right now. Shah said the agency has distributed these tests to about 100 public health labs in states. “We’ve got roughly a million available now,” he said, “and expect 1.2 million more in the next two months.”

But Nuzzo and other researchers are concerned because the CDC and public health labs aren’t generally where doctors order tests from. That job tends to be done by major clinical laboratories run by companies and universities, which lack authorization for bird flu testing.

FILE – Cows stand in the milking parlor of a dairy farm in New Vienna, Iowa, on Monday, July 24, 2023. The bird flu outbreak in U.S. dairy cows is prompting development of new, next-generation mRNA vaccines — akin to COVID-19 shots — that are being tested in both animals and people. In June 2024, the U.S. Agriculture Department is to begin testing a vaccine developed by University of Pennsylvania researchers by giving it to calves. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) 

As the outbreak grows — with at least 114 herds infected in 12 states as of June 18 — researchers said the CDC and FDA are not moving fast enough to remove barriers that block clinical labs from testing. In one case, the diagnostics company Neelyx Labs was on hold with a query for more than a month.

“Clinical labs are part of the nation’s public health system,” said Alex Greninger, assistant director of the University of Washington Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory. “Pull us into the game. We’re stuck on the bench.”