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In-state diagnostic labs help Iowans better battle H5N1

Quick test results are particularly helpful in Iowa, which has had influenza virus appear in turkeys, laying hens and dairy cattle in less than two weeks.

Roy Graber Headshot
Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig discuss the value of diagnostic laboratories in their state.
Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig discuss the value of diagnostic laboratories in their state.
Roy Graber

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig was invited to speak during an event at World Pork Expo in Des Moines, but the state’s poultry and dairy industries were still dominant in his mind.

While taking part in a June 6 panel discussion that commemorated the 10-year anniversary of America’s Cultivation Corridor, Naig brought attention to the fact that the H5N1 virus has recently affected commercial poultry and commercial dairy operations.

Within the past two weeks, the virus has struck a flock of more than 4 million laying hens in Sioux County, a flock of 100,000 turkeys in Cherokee County and a commercial dairy herd in O’Brien County.

“It’s all happening, and it’s all happening here,” said Naig.

But one thing that makes the situation easier is Iowa, and specifically the city of Ames, is the home of two state-of-the-art veterinary diagnostic laboratories, both with highly qualified and capable staffs, Naig said.

One laboratory is the Iowa State University (ISU) Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL), while the other is the National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL), affiliated with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Earlier during the discussion, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen touted the university’s laboratory, which is part of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, and the advancements it has gone through since it was first developed in 1976.

“In 1976, the VDL had about 30 faculty and staff performing about 35,000 animal disease diagnostic tests per year, and it took about three to four days to get the results for those tests. Today, the lab has 180 faculty and staff who conduct 1.6 million tests every year, and those tests come in from all across the country, and the results are available, usually in less than 24 hours,” Wintersteen said.

Getting accurate results in a manner that is quick is important, as control measures can be put in place more rapidly, and therefore reduce the likelihood of a disease’s further spread.

“I can’t even imagine having to sit in my chair today and wait three days for tests,” said Naig. “What if that were playing out today? We are dropping samples off at the diagnostic lab in the morning, and by late morning are having accurate, actionable results. I can’t tell you how important that is in dealing with today, (or how important it) would be if we were have to do a broader outbreak.”

And with two laboratories in Ames, Iowans are doubly fortunate, Naig said.

“You’ve got the Iowa state vet diagnostic lab on one side of town and the USDA NVSL facilities on the other side, which together make unmatched, I would say, in the world in terms of the expertise that exists within just the city of Ames,” he said. What’s "a huge advantage to us is we drive samples to Ames, rather than ship them.”

A position of leadership

While the two laboratories in Ames not only help Iowa producers be better able to combat more familiar animal health situations such as H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) infections in poultry, it also enables Iowa to take on a position as a national and global leader in understanding new animal health situations, such as H5N1 in dairy cattle, which had not been seen until this year.

“Those first detections, those first samples run as (H5N1) is being confirmed in dairy, were done at the diagnostic lab in Ames. The protocols are being developed in Ames. We can all be very proud of the fact that that’s expertise that’s in a building that’s got the people in it that do this work that’s so critically important,” he said.

To learn more about HPAI cases in commercial poultry flocks in the United States, Mexico and Canada, see an interactive map on 

View our continuing coverage of the global avian influenza situation

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