Avian Influenza:

USDA Has Taken Important Steps to Prepare for Outbreaks, but Better Planning Could Improve Response

GAO-07-652: Published: Jun 11, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2007.

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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.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to USDA and DHS, the two departments are working to develop a framework that will serve as a process for requesting federal-to-federal assistance during various agriculture emergencies, including those that result in a presidential declaration. The departments have conducted workshops and exercises to help develop these procedures. According to USDA and DHS, once finalized, these procedures and corresponding agreements will clearly define the roles of both agencies during a catastrophic agricultural emergency.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to USDA and DHS, the two departments are working to develop a framework that will serve as a process for requesting federal-to-federal assistance during various agriculture emergencies, including those that result in a presidential declaration. The departments have conducted workshops and exercises to help develop these procedures. According to USDA and DHS, once finalized, these procedures and corresponding agreements will clearly define the roles of both agencies during a catastrophic agricultural emergency.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, USDA officials told us they have taken actions to identify the capabilities necessary to respond to highly pathogenic avian influenza. For example, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service developed a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan. This plan includes a potential scenario where highly pathogenic avian influenza could be introduced into the United States and identifies many of the activities that must take place to respond to the outbreak, who is responsible for performing the activity, and to what standards they should be performed. This detailed plan is available on a secure Web site intended to support unified state, federal, tribal, and other stakeholder planning efforts for foreign animal diseases. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, USDA revised and enhanced its animal disease response plans, including its plan for highly pathogenic avian influenza. According to USDA officials, these plans outline many of the critical tasks and associated responsibilities and timeframes necessary to control such diseases. This fulfills the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should test these capabilities in ongoing exercises to identify gaps and ways to overcome those gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA officials, the department conducted numerous exercises with stakeholders to test the ability to respond to an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. For example, in 2008 USDA conducted 38 exercises involving more than 700 participants, including representatives from 45 states, local agencies, and the poultry industry. USDA subsequently created a summary report of these exercises and developed working groups to prioritize necessary actions to address identified gaps. Moreover, in 2009 USDA officials told us the department conducted an additional 66 exercises related to animal or public health, nine of which were specific to avian influenza or pandemic planning.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA officials, in 2010, the department posted revised response plans on a secure website that provide a framework for states to develop their own response plans. From 2009 to 2011, according to USDA, 626 stakeholders have registered for accounts to access this website, including 190 state personnel. In addition, according to USDA officials, USDA helps states understand the components of a response plan by working individually with states, participating in industry conferences, and conducting exercises. According to USDA, since 2007, more states have completed plans for highly pathogenic avian influenza. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA officials, the department has taken steps to help states overcome potential problems on all of the unresolved issues identified in our report. For example USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) developed personal protective equipment guidance that states may integrate into their preparedness plans. In addition, APHIS published a planning guide that outlined services available to help states remove and dispose of animal carcasses. Moreover, APHIS has funded several projects investigating the use of water-based foam for mass depopulation of poultry.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA officials, the agency has determined the amount of antiviral medication needed to protect animal health responders during a highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak. This determination, according to USDA, was based on past outbreak experience; input from states during tabletop exercises; and a subsequent 2009 study of resource requirements for a highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak. This fulfills the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should determine how to obtain and provide supplies within 24 hours of an outbreak.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to USDA, there is currently a sufficient supply of antiviral medication to meet demand in a highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak. Moreover, USDA now has a contract to ensure delivery of antiviral medications within 24 hours. However, the National Veterinary Stockpile has yet to resolve how it will secure future supplies of antiviral medication when the current stockpile expires.

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