COVID-19 exposed just how vulnerable we are to highly contagious diseases. It also revealed the importance of developing vaccines to save lives and protect economies.

This is just as true for animal health as it is for humans. Infectious animal diseases, like foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), have the potential to disrupt our food supply and economy in profound ways. 

That’s why, as a global leader in animal vaccines, Boehringer Ingelheim was proud to have been awarded a contract by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year to help supply the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank. We are supplying antigen for a vaccine bank to protect U.S. livestock in the event of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

We’re honored that the USDA awarded us a second contract in 2021 to continue supplying the bank. That will bolster protection for U.S. livestock producers by letting us supply more materials for more FMD vaccine doses. It will strengthen a critical stockpile of veterinary vaccines as a frontline defense against an outbreak of a high-impact foreign animal disease like FMD.

FMD is a highly contagious viral disease of wild and domesticated animals, most notably livestock such as cattle, pigs and sheep. It does not affect humans, nor does it affect food safety or public health, but the impact of an FMD outbreak on the food supply and the economy could be devastating. A 2001 outbreak in the UK and a similar event in South Korea in 2010-2011 caused billions of dollars in losses of livestock. According to Iowa State University, an FMD outbreak would result in $128 billion in losses for the beef and pork sectors and job losses of more than 1.5 million across U.S. agriculture over 10 years.

Although the last FMD outbreak in the United States happened in 1929, veterinarians, livestock producers and industry groups have long warned that – similar to what we have seen with COVID-19 – global travel and trade could lead to the accidental introduction of disease. Once present, the foot-and-mouth disease virus would spread rapidly because of the mobility of U.S. livestock production.

Loss of our “FMD-free” status from an outbreak would shut down U.S. export markets, on which the U.S. pork, beef and dairy industries rely. U.S. pork exports were valued at more than $7 billion in 2020, dairy farmers export approximately 1 of every 7 gallons of milk they produce, and beef exports were the second highest on record last year. An export embargo would lead to the loss of those revenues, devaluing domestic markets and affecting agriculture commodity prices and farm families and their communities across the country.

These concerns led Congress to set aside funding in the 2018 Farm Bill for the creation of the the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasures Bank, with an initial focus on FMD vaccines. In the event of a FMD outbreak, we could leverage the vaccine bank to quickly supply doses to U.S. livestock producers. We applaud Congress for prioritizing and funding this critical program. 

If there is a silver lining from this challenging past year, it’s that COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the critical role that vaccines play in the fight against global disease outbreaks. The pandemic also has demonstrated the importance of responding quickly to outbreaks.

We must work together to protect our economies, the U.S. livestock industry and the global food supply. It is more important than ever to increase preparedness against highly contagious diseases, build up our vaccine capacities and be diligent in protecting the U.S. from biosecurity threats like foot-and-mouth disease.

Steve Boren is Vice President of the U.S. Livestock and Equine businesses at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. 

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