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African swine fever outbreak must galvanize vaccine efforts

August 30, 2019

Dominique Charron

Vice-President, Programs and Partnerships, IDRC

There is no vaccine for African Swine Fever (ASF). So, when traditional containment efforts fail, triggering its spread across large swaths of Asia, the world should be very concerned.

ASF has long been endemic in sub-Saharan Africa and has been present in parts of Europe for decades. It is harmless to humans, but is deadly and highly contagious for pigs, wiping out entire herds while threatening food security and causing devastating economic losses.

Now the disease has spread to Asia and Europe, where animal health agencies are struggling to contain what has become the largest-ever animal disease outbreak in the world. Since last August, more than 3.6 million pigs have been culled in Asia only in an attempt to gain control of the outbreak.

The disease has not reached Canada, but the threat is significant. Canadian farmers remember well the detection of several isolated cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, popularly called Mad Cow Disease, in Canadian beef herds between 2003 and 2005. It temporarily shut down beef exports to more than 30 countries and is estimated by the Canadian Agricultural Trade Policy Research Network to have cost the industry over 4 billion dollars.  The ASF regional crisis could become a global one if containment efforts fail, and if a vaccine cannot be developed in time.

In response to the ASF outbreak, Canada is stepping up containment efforts to keep the disease out of the country, including investment of the federal government of up to $31 million to install more sniffer dogs at Canadian airports to help detect illegal importation of meat products that might be contaminated and put Canadian hog farms at risk. The stakes are high. Canada is the world’s third-largest pork exporter, generating upwards of $24 billion annually for the Canadian economy and contributing to over 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. As well, Canada convened a forum in Ottawa in late April to discuss a global response to the ASF crisis.

Canada is also playing a leading role in the vital effort to develop an effective vaccine.

The Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Global Affairs Canada, and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, is investing nearly $57 million to accelerate the development, production and sustainable delivery of new and improved vaccines for animal diseases affecting the poorest and most vulnerable smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia. For example, we are supporting two institutions – the J. Craig Venter Institute in the US and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya – who are collaborating with the Friedrich Loeffler Institute in Germany to produce a vaccine that can become a leading tool in the effort to halt, and eventually eradicate, ASF.

This project is seeking to overcome a key hurdle that has frustrated vaccine development efforts to date, the complex immune responses generated by the virus in infected pigs. Advanced microbiological techniques are now making possible the intricate virus manipulations required in the design and development of a safe and effective vaccine.

Thankfully, this effort was well underway before the current outbreak emerged. Researchers have made significant progress in laying the groundwork that will allow them to manipulate the genetics of the ASF virus, which is a key step towards developing a synthetic ASF virus that can serve as a safe and effective vaccine.

During the current outbreak, countries are understandably scaling up known containment responses, including efforts to cull infected and vulnerable herds and to detect contaminated meat products and by-products at border crossings.

These are important steps to halt the further spread of ASF, as the current outbreak has already caused pork prices to spike as much as 40 percent and threatened food security in affected countries where pork is a staple of diets.

Ultimately, as for most viral diseases of animals, the best most cost-effective long-term solution to control ASF is an effective vaccine. The achievement of this solution is in sight. The current crisis reminds us that the global community cannot guarantee that ASF and other diseases affecting livestock such as Peste des petits ruminants and Rift Valley Fever will remain confined to areas where they have long been endemic – they may spread under the right conditions.

The responsibility to respond is a global one. International collaboration, including in vaccine research, is the surest way to address these threats for a positive outcome.

This article also appears on the LaPresse website and The Producer.

Dr. Dominique Charron is Vice-President, Programs and Partnerships at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). She is a veterinarian and holds a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Guelph.

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