WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - A small animal health company based in Ames, Iowa, says it’s making progress toward gaining a conditional license from USDA for the vaccine it’s developed against a virus that has killed millions of piglets since its discovery in U.S. herds last spring.

Joel Harris, head of sales and marketing at Harrisvaccines Inc., said that since August, the company has shipped about 1.4 million doses of its vaccine against the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) to hog producers in the U.S., all with veterinary approval, and is studying the results. An additional 100,000 or so doses have been exported to Canada.

“We know that we’re generating virus-neutralizing antibodies in sows,” Harris said in a recent telephone interview. “And we know that the antibodies are being passed on to piglets through the mother’s milk once she farrows,” he said. Data from field studies are currently being passed to USDA and the department’s approval of a conditional license, which will allow the company to more widely market the vaccine, is expected this spring, Harris said.

The need for an effective vaccine against the virus, which can now be found in 27 states is acute, as illustrated by USDA’s recent quarterly report on the U.S. pig inventory. There were about 62.9 million hogs and pigs on U.S. farms as of March 1 down 3 percent from a year earlier and down 5 percent from three months earlier, the report showed. That’s the smallest number since 2007.

The pig crop for the December-through-February period was just 27.3 million, down 3 percent from the same period a year earlier. That was the fewest pigs born for any quarter since 2007. Pigs saved per litter averaged 9.53 for the three-month period, down from 10.08 a year earlier.

Earlier this week, a Rabobank report said overall U.S. pork production is anticipated to decline 6 percent to 7 percent in 2014, the most in more than 30 years. Hog prices are already near record levels and will probably go higher as pork supplies shrink, analysts say.

The virus, first recognized in the UK in 1971, can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration in pigs. While older animals mostly end up losing weight after infection, piglets often die. PEDv can’t be transmitted to humans or other animals, and has no effect on pork quality. The virus can spread rapidly throughout an entire herd of hogs. The most common avenue is on livestock and farm equipment that come into contact with hogs positive with PEDv or their feces.

Joel Harris said there are several reasons the company was able to get a vaccine out so quickly. First of all, the company acquired the gene sequence of a Chinese strain of PEDv from an online database. The strain is almost identical to the strain currently in North America.

The company then took the code and, using technology for animal vaccines acquired from AlphaVax Inc., a human vaccine company based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., it produced the vaccine. The technology enables Harrisvaccines to bypass traditional vaccine production techniques that use live viruses, making it safer for animals. Plus, it shortens the time it takes to respond to outbreaks.

“We had vaccine on the market by August,” D. L. “Hank” Harris, the founder and CEO of the company and a former Iowa State University animal sciences professor, just months after PEDv was first identified in the U.S. “With traditional methods of making vaccines, that’s not possible…. Especially with a virus like this. This particular virus is very, very difficult to grow.”

The potential market for such a vaccine is enormous. U.S. producers were holding back about 5.85 million sows for breeding as of March 1, the USDA said. The vaccine is administered by injection and the company recommends the sow be given the shot a week or two before it gives birth. A sow can give birth, or farrow, twice a year, and a booster shot possibly should be given before each farrowing, Joel Harris said. Plus the disease is widespread in Asia.

At $3 a dose, the cost may sound high, the younger Harris said. “But when you consider that hogs are selling for more than $125 a hundredweight, and the vaccine ends up going to a litter of nine to 14 piglets from the mother’s milk, it’s definitely worth it,” he said.


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