Australia's New Billion-dollar Seqirus Vaccine Plant Will Be No Match for Avian Leakage
In the meantime, industrialised chickens – and their viruses – have come home to roost in Victoria, setting the stage for a pandemic immeasurably worse than COVID-19
With supply lines breaking down across the world for fuels, medicines, clothing and other consumables, it was only inevitable that nations eventually began undertaking measures to reinvigorate flagging economies in hopes of not only returning economic output to previous – and even greater – levels than before (ultimately a crap-shoot since global limits of oil supplies have likely been reached), but to attain a sense of security over local supplies of goods. As Australian prime minister Scott Morrison stated in late-September as part of a manufacturing-boost announcement,
The efficiency benefits of hyper-globalisation and highly fragmented supply chains can evaporate quickly in the event of a major global shock like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Armed with this experience, it is only sensible that Australia consider more options to guard against supply chain vulnerability for critical necessities and to secure us against future shocks.
Come mid-November Morrison not only announced a portion of that boost, but he announced the construction of a "world-class, next-generation" facility that's to be part of Australia's post-pandemic manufacturing strategy: an $8oom vaccine factory that will allow Australia to rapidly respond to influenza outbreaks and thus enable it to produce vaccines for domestic usage as well as for export to the rest of the world.
The agreement with Seqirus, the influenza vaccine subsidiary of biotech giant CSL (which at its current 60-year-old facility in the inner Melbourne suburb of Parkville is contracted to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine as well as the University of Queensland candidate), will see the factory start construction in 2021 at the Melbourne Airport Business Park, is expected to be completed by 2026, and will entail a $1bn contribution by Australia's federal government for a 10-year supply agreement. Along with producing vaccines for Q fever, seasonal influenzas, antivenoms for dealing with tiger snakes, black and brown snakes, taipans, box jellyfish and funnel web spiders, the facility will also be capable of producing vaccines for influenza pandemics.
As Morrison stated,
Keeping Australians safe is my number one priority and while we are rightly focused on both the health and economic challenges of COVID-19, we must also guard against future threats.
This agreement cements Australia's long-term sovereign medical capabilities, giving us the ability to develop vaccines when we need them.
Just as major defence equipment must be ordered well in advance, this is an investment in our national health security against future pandemics.
As expected, the facility will not only provide Australia with the southern hemisphere's largest vaccine manufacturing centre, but it will do away with the current and time-consuming manufacturing process utilized at the Parkville facility of inoculating specially bred chicken eggs with live virus. Instead, the new Seqirus facility will utilize cell-based technology which allows for faster production and more scalability, viruses to be grown in a bioreactor instead of chicken eggs and so produced up to three times faster.
As Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt described it,
This new facility will guarantee Australian health security against pandemic influenza for the next two decades.
So Australians are safe from influenza-based pandemics now, right? It's "guaranteed", right?
What's one pandemic when you can have two!
Although Melburnians (and to a lesser degree the rest of Victorians) endured one of the longest and harshest COVID-imposed lockdowns experienced in 2020, they weren't the only species in Victoria to spend the winter cooped up at home (7 August to 26 September in this case). But unlike the species in this other lockdown, none of us humans infected with COVID-19 in Melbourne were elated to find ourselves prematurely exiting quarantine, only to then realize that we were being lined up in order to get culled.
No doubt the majority of Melburnians are blissfully unaware, but while they were experiencing the effects of the worst pandemic seen in the city in more than a hundred years, at the very same time the state of Victoria was experiencing the worst outbreak of avian influenza the state has ever seen. And not only that, but three strains, of different severity, all at the same time.
The first sign of outbreak occurred in Lethbridge (about 100km west of Melbourne) at what is referred to as a "free range" egg farm, with a second outbreaks discovered a week later at a neighbouring farm. By mid-August the outbreak spanned from Lethbridge in the west to Bairnsdale in the east (about 250km from Melbourne), had hit more than six farms, and resulted in nearly half a million chickens, turkeys and emus being culled as well as Agriculture Victoria visiting farms to remove and dispose any litter, mulch, soil, or anything else that the birds may have come in contact with.
Not only had the rest of Australia locked off its borders to entry by Victorians, but at least eight countries had banned imports of any poultry from the several-times-over infected state. And while Melburnians were restricted to a 5km radius from where they lived as well as locked off from the rest of the state via the "ring of steel" border, biosecurity zones were set up to quarantine Victorian farms from one another so as to hinder the spread of this simultaneous outbreak. (If it'll make Melburnians happy, the restriction on the Turkey farm in Bairnsdale was a 1km radius buffer zone.)
The outbreak that hit three egg-laying chicken farms was a high pathogenic H7N7 strain (the first high pathogenic strain to hit a chicken farm in Victoria since 1992, the eighth in Australia since 1976), while the strains that hit two turkey farms and one emu farm were low pathogenic H5N2 and H7N6 strains, respectively. (Explanation and elaboration on the "H" for haemagglutinin, "N" for neuraminidase as well as their associated numerals are not crucial for the purpose of this post.)
Although H5 and H7 influenza lineages are in fact capable of transmission to humans, and have in fact been circulating in Australia for years, neither the H7N7 strain nor the H7N2 strain were deemed to be of immediate concern. Of course none of this is to say that an influenza strain on Australian farms couldn't mutate and thus attain the ability to jump the species barrier, quite possibly resulting in dire effects (to say the least).
What is of concern is a virus with the severity along the lines of the highly devastating H5N1 strain, an influenza which hasn't spread between humans very well, is believed to have a 60% mortality rate, but which has fortunately never been detected in either Australian wild or domesticated birds (none of which precludes the emergence of a native virus as such on Australian soil though).
Free range is no longer home, home on the range
For a bit of a hint on how an influenza virus might escalate in Australia we can take a look at a few words from Michael Pollan's best-seller The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan describing his venture inside an organic chicken shed:
I donned what looked like a hooded white hazmat suit – since the birds receive no antibiotics yet live in close confinement, the company is ever worried about infection, which could doom a house overnight – and stepped inside... [T]hese defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection. This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an industrial system: It is even more precarious than a conventional industrial system... [and so] everyone keeps their fingers crossed.1
In Victoria, and I presume the rest of Australia, the problem doesn't lie so much with growing organic chickens in an industrial system (although that too) so much as it does with growing free range chickens in an industrial system.
For years I'd been confused with how grocery stores as well as the Queen Victoria Market were able to sell so many eggs from what were labeled as "free range" chickens. Not only because they weren't all that much more expensive than the eggs from caged chickens, but because there was just so many of them. That is, free range chickens require a fair bit of space, so where did all the land come from, and how did that not substantially drive up the price of the eggs?
Before I get to that, there's obviously no doubt that free range eggs are a popular item. As stated in a paper published earlier this year and co-authored by scientists from Charles Sturt University and the University of Sydney,
In recent years, there has been an increase in consumer demand for free range chicken products due to the belief that free range production provides better welfare for the bird and produces a higher quality product. This has lead to an increase of free range Australian chicken meat production from 15% in 2011 to 20% in [sic, 2014?], and a grocery market share volume of free range Australian eggs from 39% in 2015 to 45% in 2019 of which now surpasses cage egg volumes.
With such increases in demand it could only be expected that the large conglomerates would want a share in the consumer confidence that free range production provides something of higher quality, regardless of what that higher quality might actually be. As it turns out, what the large conglomerates really wanted to do was redefine the term in order to suit their own needs.
At the time, a voluntary code developed by CSIRO had set 1500 hens per hectare as the maximum outdoor stocking density for qualification of being deemed a producer of "free range" eggs. But in mid-2016, following a decision made by all state and territory governments, consumer affairs ministers announced that a new maximum outdoor stocking density would apply, a whopping 10,000 hens per hectare.
Quite unsurprisingly, these changes angered a lot of small-scale producers. As stated by Lee McCosker of the licensing and accreditation company Pasture Raised on Open Fields (PROOF),
They [larger egg producers] fought hard for the right to use the definition free range. In my opinion, they stole it from those who developed and deserved to use it.
While also stating that the re-definition "has condemned free range to be just a supermarket term" (to which I'd add "a Queen Victoria Market term"), McCosker also added that
The powers-that-be have determined the supermarkets are more deserving of the term free range than our little family farms, and in the process, they have destroyed the integrity of the term free range.
As a result, and at their expense, these small producers have now been forced to establish a new term to differentiate themselves from the larger producers. To go along with conventional, RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), organic, caged, and the re-defined "free range", there is now "pasture fed" / "pastured eggs".
Both conventional and RSPCA chickens are kept full-time in their sheds, the main difference being that the RSPCA chickens are packed in at a density of 30% less than their conventionally-raised brethren (the RSPCA chickens also get perches, hanging CDs that they can peck at, as well as soccer balls they can play with – and no, I'm not kidding).
When it comes to the re-defined free range chickens, while density limits are set at a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare, Brian Ahmed of the Victorian Farmers Federation points out that "Unfortunately, to produce the volume of eggs the supermarkets want, there needs to be 20, 30, 40,000 birds in a shed".
As the ABC describes the absurd situation,
While the chickens have access to an outside run, which is quickly denuded of vegetation, most hens shelter in the climate-controlled shed, away from predators such as hawks and foxes and close to their food and water.
Last of all there's the pasture fed chickens. Utilizing various kinds of contraptions such as mobile coops, these hens are raised at very low densities – sometimes as low as 130 hens per hectare – and are thus assured the ability to peck around on green grass thanks to their constant rotation to fresh pasture. Hawks, crows, foxes and feral cats are of course still an issue, which is why Maremma dogs and alpacas are used to protect the flocks from predators and to thus allow the chickens to safely venture out of their sheds as well as roam around on the paddocks without fear. All in all, it's not only a labour-intensive process, it's also a thought-intensive process.
There is of course one "problem". The eggs from chickens raised via the latter method, while ecologically sound in every way (unlike conventional, RSPCA, organic, caged, and free range methods), invariably cost more money. A lot more. As described by one Victorian large-scale producer who raises conventional, RSPCA, and free range chickens,
The consumer, to buy free range or to buy RSPCA, they must pay a premium because it costs us a lot more money to rear them, for instance to build a shed would probably be 30 per cent more expensive if we were doing it all with RSPCA because we simply put less birds in the shed, so it's a cost thing.
The market will head towards that, we really see the ramping up of animal welfare and we agree with it, we're passionate about it, but you can't force people to buy a higher welfare bird if they've only got a certain amount of dollars to spend.
Take a stroll over to Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market (whose prices are often cheaper than the supermarkets), and while you'll find eggs from chickens raised at densities as low as 130 hens per hectare, you'll also find eggs costing more than $10 per dozen.
It should go without saying that although "pastured eggs are becoming the latest consumer trend", there's no way that a significant amount of Australians could financially afford to purchase eggs at those prices on a regular basis. This poses an even bigger problem. A much bigger problem.
Avian leakage has come home to roost
As also stated in that paper – "An overview of avian influenza in the context of the Australian commercial poultry industry" – co-authored by Charles Sturt University and the University of Sydney scientists,
The increase in free range production raises concerns due to the increased potential contact between wild birds and domestic poultry and the subsequent introduction of pathogens such as AIV [avian influenza virus].
And as the paper described in more detail,
The influence on farm type on AI [avian influenza] outbreak risk in the Australian commercial chicken industry was assessed through branching process models. It was found that a 25% change in the proportion of farms in the Australian commercial chicken industry to free range farming would increase the probability of a HPAI [high pathogenic avian influenza] outbreak by 6–7%, rising to 12–14% with a 50% change to free range farming.
The reason for all this lies in the fact that avian influenza viruses can be carried by wild birds, who can then spread the viruses from farm to farm via their faeces. Since the danger increases by orders of magnitude on the industrial farms with tens of thousands of birds in comparison to the small farms with dozens or maybe hundreds of birds, it's like how Michael Pollan described it: "everyone keeps their fingers crossed".
That being said, perhaps the authors of the aforementioned paper should have made sure to differentiate between poultry raised in what is now referred to as "free range" conditions and those raised in the new category of "pasture fed" conditions. Because, and just for starters (I'll be elaborating in much more detail on what I call The Monoculture Flu later on in 2021), while the density of birds in conventional, RSPCA, and free range sheds imply a large base of chickens from which an influenza virus can easily bounce around between and thus mutate over and over again, the genetic similarity of the poultry (crucial in various ways for cost-cutting industrial efficiency) makes the ability for viruses to jump and mutate between hosts that much easier (influenza viruses mutate much more when jumping between hosts than coronaviruses do).
On the other hand, genetically diverse chickens, raised in mixed settings (which the term "pasture raised" falls under), do not harbour as much of an opportunity for influenza viruses to flourish within and amplify to catastrophic proportions due to their lower densities and higher genetic diversity.
That being the case, and as the aforementioned paper also states,
[T]he Australian poultry industries have been assessed as vulnerable to large outbreaks of HPAI. Other countries which have experienced widespread HPAI outbreaks have common with Australia, such as dense farm areas and frequent farm to farm.
"Other countries" is most certainly correct. While writing this post an H5N8 strain of avian influenza was discovered in Denmark which required the culling of 25,000 chickens as well as the restriction from exporting eggs and poultry outside of the European Union for three months, while on the same day 16,100 turkeys in Germany had to be culled due to the same strain. As stated in the Byline Times article "Why the UK Could be the Source of the Next Pandemic" that was published the very same day,
[W]hile the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has urged poultry farmers to maintain and enhance biosecurity measures, such as minimising movement in and out of bird sheds, [professor Andrew] Knight points out that such measures are not fail-safe.
"Your biosecurity has to be perfect 24/7, 365 days a year," Knight told Byline Times, "and if you fail just once then there's the potential for a disease to slip out and contaminate surrounding farms and also potentially human communities nearby."
But of course neither biosecurity nor any other system can ever be 100% safe. The choice therefore lies between (a) creating cost-cutting, industrially-efficient systems based on various monocultural methodologies (which also implies copious inputs of fossil fuels) in order to not only appease shareholders but which invariably also puts modern civilisation at risk due to the possibility of catastrophic influenzas that cross the species barrier, or (b) creating more labour-intensive, thought-intensive, ecologically-responsible methods which not only vastly reduce – if not eliminate – the emergence of HPAIs, but which can also create healthier food, communities and ecosystems. I shouldn't have to tell you on which end of the spectrum free range eggs lie.
Because in late-August, and after having to cull more than 380,000 birds (about a third of its flock), the ASX-listed company Farm Pride (which not very surprisingly has a Diversity Policy when it comes to humans, but not when it comes to the genetics of their chickens, the feed of those chickens, nor the systems those chickens are raised in) announced to the ASX that it was looking at losses in the $18-$23 million range for the 2020-21 financial year and that the "full financial impact is still being determined and remains material". As the Board of Farm Pride elaborated,
The Company continues to work closely with Ag Vic to ensure compliance with all Restricted and Control Area Orders. This further outbreak has occurred despite strict monitoring and controls that have prohibited the movement of birds, equipment and products within and out of restricted areas and this farm. It is disappointing that despite the highest bio security levels and efforts of the farm management and Ag Vic that this site has now succumbed to the virus. The AI H7N7 virus is a particularly virulent and aggressive strain.
Like it or not, although many Australians could certainly cut down on a flat white per week or on one of their streaming video subscriptions and then put those savings towards purchasing pasture raised eggs instead of free range eggs (and thus do their part in lessening the chances of the emergence of a pandemic immeasurably worse than COVID-19), the fact remains that a large portion – if not the majority – of Australians simply can’t afford something so simple as the added expense of eggs from pasture raised chickens (and so with each free range egg they eat they are invariably contributing another roll of the dice to the chances of “breeding” the “perfect” influenza virus able to "cull" a significant portion of the human population).
Although some onus can be placed on better-heeled consumers who are able but choose not to purchase eggs (and meat) from pasture raised chickens, since the finances of the majority of Australians don't allow for this choice, the vast majority of the onus lies on Australian governments who continually sanction and promote industrial agricultural systems that not only create ecological havoc, consolidate ownership of farms in fewer and fewer hands, but which also exacerbate the likelihood of a much more catastrophic pandemic than what the world is currently experiencing.
But this isn't simply a case of government incompetence. It's also a cultural problem, one whereby modern-day people are not only victim to economic systems that have pushed them off the land and into overcrowded and overpopulated urban centres, as well as one where people, who if given the choice, would largely choose to not live a life closer to the land where, for starters, they'd have the opportunity to participate in communities and economies that raised their own chickens and eggs in diverse, pandemic-avoiding agricultural systems.
As things stand, it isn't too hard to see a parallel between diet pills and Australia's recently announced billion dollar vaccine plant. That is, the idea that we as a society can eat as poorly as we like, gain as much weight as we want, then fix it all with diet pills that effortlessly cure us of our girth – but which simultaneously lead to the trade-off of anal leakage.
As stated by the ABC:
Frank Wong from the CSIRO said intensive chicken farms provided viruses like avian influenza with a high population of new hosts.
"There is a chance that the virus, if it mutates to a high pathogenic form, it becomes a serious disease and then it becomes very contagious," he said.
"Then we can sort of see the problems that we've seen in Lethbridge, where lots of chickens succumb to disease virtually over the course of a few days."
But for turkey farmer Narelle Mollard, it's a risk worth taking.
"It's opened my eyes, but if you want free-range turkeys as well as chickens or anything like that, it's a risk that you've got to be aware of," she said.
By having apparently accepted the risk of catastrophic pandemics by raising, purchasing and then consuming free range poultry (and their eggs), followed with the belief that a state-of-the-art billion-dollar vaccine plant "will", as quoted earlier by Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt, "guarantee Australian health security against pandemic influenza", is to partake in hubris in its highest sense.
In other words, make no mistake about it. Although it's more likely to emerge in a place like the United States or China where chickens aren't kept in the tens of thousands but in the millions, the countdown to the Monoculture Flu – avian leakage – is on.
And this time we're not going to have to wait a hundred years before it turns up to play.
As a parting note, while the 2009 H1H1 Swine Flu (also affectionately known as the NAFTA Flu) was first identified in Mexico on 17 March 2009 and reported by the CDC to the WHO on 18 April, the CDC began developing a candidate vaccine on 21 April. It wasn't until five months later, 15 September, that four 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccines were announced by the FDA.
In other words, if an influenza virus were to emerge with something similar to the 60% mortality rate of H5N1, which spread faster than COVID-19, and which like the NAFTA Flu began to mutate around the world two months after the first vaccines appeared (20 November), this could quite easily render any vaccines for a first wave of the Monoculture Flu useless and, in the "right" conditions bring an end to civilisation as we know it.
Don't tell any of that to Scotty from Marketing though. He's too busy trolling Australia.
Sounds of COVID-19, with Fanfare Ciocărlia
Having been mostly raised by farmers in the small and secluded Romanian village of Zece Prăjini, the members of Fanfare Ciocărlia know a thing or two about how to properly raise chickens – which is by no means hidden in the style of their music.
Putting aside tubas that rampage as fast as chickens can run, for this post's song we'll be heading back to Fanfare Ciocărlia's debut album, Radio Pașcani (1998). Upon introducing Fanfare Ciocărlia to a friend of mine some years ago, a guy who liked to play accompaniment on his guitar while listening to music, this is what he had to say:
I finally found a song of theirs that wasn't overwhelming and overpowering and that I could actually play along to. Then at about two minutes in, it just exploooooded.
In other words, if you'd like to hear the sound of the calm before the (Monoculture Flu) storm, and then gain a taste of the speed and ferocity in store for us once the (Monoculture Flu) storm does in fact hit, then be sure to give a listen to "Doina si Balaseanca".
And be sure to also stick around for the 4:46 mark because – after the brief lull – that's when the second and then third waves hit.
Not sure what this "Sounds of COVID-19, with Fanfare Ciocărlia" section is? Then be sure to check out its dedicated page for an explanation:
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 171-172.