WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2016 - The United States is in dire need of a robust vaccination bank if it wants to protect the nation’s multibillion dollar livestock industry from the ravages of a highly contagious and difficult-to-control virus: Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). At least that’s what livestock association representatives and vaccine specialists told a House Agriculture subcommittee last week.
Lawmakers on the Livestock and Foreign Agriculture panel largely agreed that a FMD bank was needed, however, they – and the hearing witnesses – weren’t saying who would pay for the $750 million project.
The National Veterinary Stockpile – the entity the witnesses propose will house the FMD vaccine bank – currently holds zero FMD vaccines, and is notoriously underfunded. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., suggested checkoff funding, a processing fee, or a private-public partnership between USDA and the livestock industry could pay for the bank’s construction.
But Howard Hill, representing the National Pork Producers Council at the hearing, said from his group’s perspective, “it’s hard to agree” to pitching in when it’s uncertain how much each livestock sector would be impacted by an outbreak.
David Sjeklocha, on behalf of the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, questioned whether there might be infighting between pork and beef producers over who gets the vaccine first. “I think overall, some industry involvement would be acceptable (in funding the bank), but that is one of the problems I think we’d have to face.”
Cynthia Wolf, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota and a representative of the American Sheep Industry Association, said FMD “isn’t just a livestock industry problem; this is an all-of-agriculture problem.” FMD could disrupt grain movement to livestock producers and might even prohibit the movement of fuel to farms, she suggested. “I think the public stands to lose so much that I think the industry groups would step forward, but that they would have a difficult time shouldering the majority of the costs because their losses would be huge.”
FMD spreads quickly through contact in animals with divided hooves, such as cows, pigs and sheep, as well as wild animals, like deer and feral hogs – of which there are about 30 million and 5 million nationwide, respectively. The virus doesn’t usually kill animals it infects – nor does it pose a threat to humans; instead, it diminishes animals’ capacity to produce milk and meat.
The most current research out of Iowa State University – directed by Jim Roth, also a witness at the hearing – suggests the revenue losses to just the U.S. pork and beef industries from an outbreak would be $12.9 billion every year over a 10-year period. Over the same timeframe, the corn industry would lose an estimated $44 billion and the soybean industry, $24.9 billion.
The last case of FMD in the U.S. was in 1929 (the U.S. has only had nine outbreaks in total), but 96 other countries in Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East struggle to prevent and manage the disease. The disease sporadically makes appearances in non-endemic countries, too, like Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, which all experienced outbreaks within the last 16 years.
Just this past summer, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service cleared some regions in Brazil and Argentina to export beef to the U.S., despite those countries’ history with FMD. Some farm groups, such as NCBA and the National Farmers Union, have voiced concerns about allowing the products into the U.S.
If it were detected within the U.S., Roth’s research suggests the disease would spread very quickly based on the number of animals routinely moved within the country and abroad. To give some context, an estimated 1 million pigs and 400,000 cattle are moved daily in the U.S., some over long distances. And approximately 11 percent of U.S. beef and 22 percent of U.S. pork is exported annually. Countries that import U.S. beef, pork and milk – worth $20 billion annually – would likely cease or severely restrict those imports.
Any infected animal would have to be euthanized and disposed of properly – something the witnesses said would be nearly impossible given the sheer number of cattle housed in large feedlots, sometimes upwards of 100,000 head.
Because FMD has wide strain variability, managing and ultimately eradicating the virus requires strain-specific vaccines, which are very expensive, Hill testified.
U.S. law prohibits live samples of the FMD virus to be brought within the country’s borders; so American producers would be totally reliant on foreign vaccines in the case of an outbreak. Non-living, recombinant DNA vaccines for FMD aren’t likely to be commercialized in the U.S. for at least five years, Hill said.
Roth says that the U.S. livestock industry would need 10 million vaccine doses for the first two weeks of an outbreak. But based on the contracts APHIS has in place with foreign vaccine producers, the U.S. would only have access to 2.5 million doses every three weeks.
Steve Parker, director of Merial Veterinary Public Health, a company that maintains and manages antigen banks worldwide, testified it would take only four days to convert an antigen – that is, the substance that prompts an immune system to produce antibodies – into 2.5 million doses of vaccine if the correct antigen were available domestically. Going from scratch to a vaccine would take several weeks at least, he said.
The vaccine bank that the witnesses asked for would stock as many antigens as possible, but they’re shooting for at least the 23 most common strains. Currently, the U.S. has access to the North American FMD Vaccine Bank – located off the coast of Long Island – which holds 14 antigens. However, Roth said this bank does not have a large enough capacity to protect the expansive U.S. livestock industry on its own.
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