WASHINGTON, March 23, 2016 - USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has concluded that it’s unprepared to handle a large outbreak of the highly virulent foot and mouth livestock disease (FMD) and is taking the first steps to build a stockpile of at least 250 million doses of vaccine.
Up until about 2006 the APHIS plan to deal with a “moderate-to-large” FMD outbreak – an event where infection spreads through one to several “livestock-dense” states – was simply to destroy all infected animals, according to USDA officials who spoke with Agri-Pulse.
But an ongoing dialogue with livestock producers and rising beef and pork production, as well as an increase in livestock mobility, sparked a change in APHIS’ plan, the officials said.
“We examined our ability to respond, and up until about 10 years ago the response was stamping out, which means we would kill the cattle and swine,” one USDA official said. “But the sheer amount of funding and resources it would take to kill a feedlot (full of cattle) or a large number of swine was virtually overwhelming, so vaccination became a much more attractive option.”
Dave Sjeklocha, a veterinarian for Cattle Empire, agrees. Testifying before a House Agriculture subcommittee last month as a representative of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, he said that it is estimated that over 400,000 head of cattle are in transit on a daily basis.
“The structure of modern agriculture in the United States, including large herd sizes and extensive intra- and interstate movement of cattle and cattle products will make it nearly impossible to control an FMD outbreak in livestock-dense areas without the rapid use of tens of millions of doses of FMD vaccine,” he said.
There hasn’t been a case of FMD in the U.S. since 1929, but cattle ranchers and the U.S. meat industry have become increasingly concerned as global meat and livestock trade intensifies, often with countries that have long histories of battling the virus. Just last year APHIS gave the green light to Brazil and Argentina to prepare to begin exporting beef to the U.S. despite industry concerns of an FMD threat.
About six months ago, the agency met with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other rancher groups. The message to APHIS during that meeting, Sjeklocha said, was an emphatic plea to bulk up the agency’s stockpile of vaccines.
So on March 14, APHIS sent out what it calls a “sources sought notice,” informing vaccine companies around the world that the agency wants to begin discussions about contracting hundreds of millions of doses.
“APHIS has held extensive conversations with livestock producers and related industries while developing our FMD preparedness plans,” the agency said in a memo to leaders of the livestock and meat sectors. “During these discussions, everyone involved recognized there is an increased need for a steady vaccine supply to combat this devastating disease should it enter the country.”
But it won’t come quickly and it won’t be cheap.
APHIS says it wants to eventually have 25 million doses each for 10 different strains of the virus. If it were to buy all 250 million doses right now – an impossibility because it doesn’t have the money and global production doesn’t yet have the capacity – it would cost anywhere between $100 million and $200 million. The broad range is due to the spread in cost – ranging from 40 cents to 80 cents per dose – between different vaccines for different strains.
“It’s important to understand that even if we had the money today, the global production capacity is still limited,” another USDA official said. “It would have to grow in order to meet the need. We simply couldn’t build the bank overnight. It’s not a matter of going to the Internet and placing an order for 25 million doses. This is going to take a number of years in order to have a large enough inventory that we can rely on.”
And that bumps up the price, the government officials said, because global vaccine demand is stronger than supply, and prices rise an average of 5 percent every year. Manufacturers are expanding capacity, they said, but South Korea, Japan, Australia and several European countries are all competing for the doses.
Further complicating APHIS’ task is that the vaccine manufacturers must be located on foreign soil because the virus is so virulent that U.S. law forbids companies to work with it domestically.
“We would like to have the funding available as soon as possible, but that’s going to be contingent on how important Congress views this,” one APHIS official said.
It may also be contingent on how hard the Obama administration pushes lawmakers for the funding. USDA asked for just $1.7 million for FMD vaccine purchases in its budget proposal for the 2017 fiscal year.
One lawmaker who agrees with APHIS that an FMD outbreak would be “devastating” is Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C. As chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture, he said at a Feb. 11 hearing: “I’m concerned that an outbreak of FMD in the United States would have catastrophic consequences for the multibillion dollar livestock industry, delivering a very harsh economic effect that would be felt far beyond animal agriculture. In fact, I have seen a recent estimate focusing on the pork industry, estimating an annual impact of $12.8 billion dollars.”
That was the conclusion of a recent Iowa State University study that also predicted the corn industry would lose $44 billion annually and the soybean industry $24.9 billion as feed purchases declined.
The first conclusion of the Iowa State study, entitled “FMD Vaccine Surge Capacity for Emergency Use in the United States,” is that APHIS must enter “into vendor‐managed‐inventory contracts with international manufacturers of FMD vaccines, for rapid delivery of mul tiple strains of finished vaccines into the U.S.”
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