Thu, May 23, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Gene-altered pigs could halt epidemics

Bloomberg

As China struggles to stem a contagious, hog-ravaging disease, a British company offers some hope, but it might first need to convince consumers and the government that it is safe.

Genus PLC, one of the world’s largest animal genetics companies, has developed pigs that are genetically modified to resist a viral disease that spread across China’s farms more than a decade ago. It is now also eyeing ways to stamp out a more lethal contagion — African swine fever, which is threatening to wipe out more than a quarter of the nation’s herd.

The Basingstoke, England-based firm is entering talks with China’s regulatory authorities to determine whether it can forge a path to market for its gene-edited lines of live hogs.

China bans so-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, and consumers there are wary of them after numerous food-safety scandals.

The process might take several years, said Matt Culbertson, director of global product development at Genus’s pig improvement unit known as PIC.

The company is collaborating with Beijing Capital Agribusiness Co (BCA), a livestock breeding firm part-owned by the Beijing municipal government.

China has half the planet’s pigs and its pork industry is worth about US$128 billion a year.

The genetics company created four distinct “elite populations” of male and female pigs that have been genetically fortified to resist the viral cause of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, known as “blue ear” disease because of the bluish discoloration to the ears and body that infected pigs display.

As part of the tie-up, Genus is to receive as much as US$180 million, including cash payments and the potential creation of a joint venture, if virus-free pigs are approved by Chinese regulators.

Genus’s blue ear-resistant pigs are housed in facilities in the US, where the company aims to win the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval to market them, Culbertson said.

Besides regulators, wooing consumers in China will also be “critical,” Genus chief operating officer Bill Christianson said.

“China, like a lot of places, is still coming to grips with some of the advances in technology,” Christianson said, referring to the addition of foreign DNA in an organism. “We’re not introducing any foreign DNA.”

The company’s next goal is finding a solution to combat African swine fever.

There is no safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection, nor anything to treat the disease, which kills almost every pig that catches it.

So far, with African swine fever, “there isn’t a solution,” Genus chief executive Karim Bitar told analysts on a Feb. 28 conference call.

“It’s in a research phase,” he said. “Are we actively investing in that arena? Absolutely, yes. So let’s just keep our fingers crossed on that one is what I would say.”

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