Scientists are working to develop a vaccine to help guard the world’s pork supply as the deadly African swine fever virus ravages Asia’s pig herds.
Farmers have long-contained its spread by quarantining and killing infected animals, but the disease’s devastating march into East Asia is intensifying the search for another solution.
The virus had not been considered as high a priority for researchers until it turned up last year in China, home to half the world’s pig population, likely by way of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Since then, it has spread to other Asian countries, including Vietnam, killing millions of pigs along the way. Although it does not sicken people, the disease is highly contagious and deadly to pigs.
“Today’s situation, where you have this global threat, puts a lot more emphasis on this research,” said Luis Rodriguez, who leads the US government lab on foreign animal diseases at Plum Island, New York.
One way to develop a vaccine is to kill a virus before injecting it into an animal. The disabled virus does not make the animal sick, but it prompts the immune system to identify the virus and produce antibodies against it.
However, this approach is not consistently effective with all viruses, including the one that causes African swine fever.
That is why scientists have been working on another type of vaccine, made from a weakened virus rather than a dead one. With African swine fever, the puzzle has been figuring out exactly how to tweak the virus.
In Vietnam, where the virus has killed 4 million pigs in six months, the government said that it was testing vaccines, but provided few details of its program.
In China, the government indicated that scientists are working on a vaccine that genetically alters the virus, an approach US scientists have been pursuing as well.
Taiwan has imposed extra security screenings for arriving air passengers carrying pork products in efforts to stave off an outbreak. Infected pig carcasses have been found washed ashore on Taiwan’s beaches, but there has been no outbreak in the nation.
Myanmar early this month reported its first outbreak and North Korea in May reported an outbreak, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said.
The US Department of Agriculture said that it has signed a confidential agreement with a vaccine manufacturer to further research and develop one of Plum Island’s three vaccine candidates.
The candidates were made by genetically modifying the virus to delete certain genes.
However, before a vaccine becomes available, it needs to be tested in large numbers of pigs in secure facilities with isolation pens; waste and carcass incinerators; and decontamination showers for staff, said Linda Dixon, a biologist at London’s Pirbright Institute, which studies viral diseases in livestock.
The process takes two to five years, she said.
Even if vaccines become available, they might not work across the globe.
For example, vaccines developed for the virus in China and Europe might do nothing in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease has been around longer.
A vaccine might be most desirable in places where the disease is widespread, said Daniel Rock, who previously headed Plum Island’s African swine fever program, adding that other countries might prefer the quarantine-and-kill method.
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