Minnesota company develops vaccine for pig virus

Farm Forum

MANKATO, Minn. — An epidemic virus that has proven fatal for almost all newborn pigs and swine continues to affect hog operations in more than 31 states, including Minnesota.

Mankato-based MJ Biologics may soon be releasing a new vaccine to fight the disease, known as porcine epidemic diarrhea virus or PED. There are currently two vaccines in circulation — they have been given conditional approval by the Department of Agriculture and their effectiveness is currently being tested.

MJ Biologics’ vaccine would be the third.

“Right now we’ve tested vaccines successfully in the field,” said MJ Biologics Chief Executive Bill Marks. “The next step now is to work with the USDA and get it conditionally licensed and get it to the farmers as soon as possible.”

Though infection rates are down, hog owners all over the country will be holding their breath this month in hopes PED doesn’t regain its hold upon the nation’s pigs.

Steve Tousignant, associate veterinarian and epidemiologist at the St. Peter-based Swine Vet Center, said infectious diseases often become more virulent in the fall. Weather conditions are a likely factor, though the process of spreading manure upon recently harvested fields could be another.

A recent study conducted by the Swine Center seems to indicate that PED can survive in the pigs’ waste for several months after infection. Researchers tested manure from 30 barns in southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa and found live strains of the virus at two.

Both farms had been PED free for four months. Other farms tested were PED free for six months.

No evidence of the virus was found in the second grouping, which places the lifespan of the virus somewhere between 16 and 24 weeks. Because the virus can survive several months in the manure pits, farms recovering from an infection pose a risk.

Runoff from farm fields could spread PED to previously healthy farms, Tousignant said. Farm vehicles and trucks that drive through the manure could also act as carriers.

“That’s why we really encourage farmers to communicate with their neighbors and avoid spreading manure in fields close to healthy hog farms,” Tousignant said.

Many farms are now disinfecting their equipment and making workers changes clothes and shoes before working with herds.

Though some have managed to avoid PED, the virus has killed off 10 percent or more of the nation’s hogs. In January alone, an estimated 1.3 piglets were lost, the National Pork Board estimates.

Since PED first presented itself in the U.S., it has killed more than 5 million.

That’s partially because the nation’s hogs have no immunity to the disease, Tousignant said. Before 2013, there were no reported cases of it in the U.S.

Though many older pigs can survive the severe diarrhea the virus causes, young piglets often don’t.

“Really the most dramatic presentation of this disease in young pigs that are still nursing,” Tousignant said. “It causes really, really severe diarrhea and it’s really hard to keep the baby pigs hydrated.”

The disease cannot be transmitted to humans, Tousignant said. However, industry analysts have predicted an impact on pork prices if the virus continues to spread.

The Swine Center, which works with farmers from all over the country, is among those testing the new PED vaccines, Tousignant said. Just recently made available to farmers and vets, research into their effectiveness remains in its infancy

At MJ Biologics, Marks said that the U.S. response to PED has been quick. He called developing a vaccine for the disease a collaborative effort.

As when porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS, pronounced ‘pers’) hit the nation’s hog farms in the mid-1980s, farmers, veterinarians, researchers and industry players have banded together to find a solution — MJ Biologics was a big part of the effort and working with the University of Minnesota developed a vaccine to help eradicate it.

Marks didn’t want to speculate about the effectiveness of the company’s new PED vaccine, but said he was optimistic.

“I think the real story out here is that the collaboration that the industry has seen between universities such as the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, South Dakota University, the swine veterinarians, the pork producers, everyone that is involved with this turbo disease,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry of 37 years and I’ve never seen the collaboration displayed by all these people. … Everyone’s come together because of this crisis.”