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USDA approves emergency vaccine to protect endangered California condors from bird flu

California Condor.
California Condor.

An outbreak of bird flu has been killing California condors, leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve an emergency vaccine in response.

The USDA’s veterinary labs report 13 California condor deaths since March from Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

So far, only condors in Arizona and Utah have died. There have been no confirmed reports on the Central Coast or in the rest of California.

Though the emergency vaccine has been authorized, it can’t be used on condors just yet.

Dr. Amy Wells is a veterinarian and advisor to the California Condor Recovery Program.At the Ventana Wildlife Society's Condor Chat in April, she said the vaccine will need to go through testing to make sure it’s completely safe.

“They’re gonna try using it on vultures and then non-releasable condors before we could ever use it in the wild population,” Wells said.

With the wild California condor population dwindling to less than 350, Wells said she hopes the process can be sped up to save species from further harm.

“Fingers crossed they can get it to us,” Wells said.

According to the CDC, HPAI has infected nearly 60 thousand birds and poultry in the US.

At the October Condor Zoom-chat, Ventana Wildlife Society staff presented the new condor rookie cohort.
Screenshot — Ventana Wildlife Society
At the October Condor Zoom-chat, Ventana Wildlife Society staff presented the new condor rookie cohort.

The USDA approved the emergency vaccination for California condors specifically because of their critically endangered status and small, closely monitored population.

Wells said avian flu is highly contagious for condors because of their social nature.

“Chances of it going bird to bird [were] proven just because there were pairs where they went one bird to the other quite quickly,” Wells said.

Condors were nearly hunted to extinction during the California Gold Rush.

Lead poisoning from spent ammunition continues to be the number one cause of death among adult California Condors in the wild.

Wells said the symptoms of avian flu closely mimic lead poisoning.

“It's a huge number of symptoms that can be anything from death, to nausea or poor energy, appetite, respiratory signs, neurologic symptoms,” Wells said.

According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, infection rates appear to be declining.

The vaccine trial is set to begin this month in North Carolina.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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