Several new government- and industry-funded studies are underway to develop mRNA vaccines for livestock, part of the massive expansion of the animal vaccine industry projected to be worth $26.12 billion by 2030.

Researchers at Iowa State University are undertaking a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop mRNA vaccine technology to prevent bovine respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Pharmaceutical company Zoetis developed an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine for animals that was administered to animals at zoos throughout the country.

And researchers in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experimented with vaccinating captive-bred black-footed ferrets against COVID-19. They also experimented with social distancing and quarantine of ferrets.

Third generation vaccines,” including DNA, RNA and recombinant viral vector vaccines, are not only administered to livestock — but they also are being developed for companion animals and wild animals.

A peer-reviewed study in the journal Viruses last year reported, “The successful application of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 has further validated the platform and opened the floodgates to mRNA vaccine’s potential in infectious disease prevention, especially in the veterinary field.”

Citing the need for biosecurity, in September 2022, the New South Wales (NSW) government fast-tracked the world’s first mRNA vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease and lumpy-skin disease, in a five-year multimillion dollar deal with U.S. biotech company Tiba Biotech.

Announcing the deal, Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW Paul Toole said:

“I have now written to vaccine manufacturers to take up my challenge to develop both vaccines ready for use and manufacture in NSW by August 1 next year.

“COVID-19 demonstrated to us that all possible avenues in developing vaccines must be explored and we will leave no stone unturned.”

Dugald Saunders, NSW minister for agriculture, emphasized how important it was to “protect [NSW’s] livestock sector” and said the agreement with Tiba Biotech to create mRNA vaccines, “would be a game-changer for the industry.”

But experts have raised concerns. Holistic veterinarian Dr. W. Jean Dodds, told The Defender in an email:

“Not enough is known at this time if mRNA vaccines can generate any long-term effects on reproduction or lifespan of domestic farm stock.

“As livestock become part of the human and animal food chain, we need to be sure that no abnormal cellular or molecular changes to the animal could be induced by this type of vaccine.”

‘Good health starts with biosecurity’

According to a report published last year by Grand View Research, the market for animal vaccines is expected to grow at a 9.3% compounded annual growth rate, because “the growing incidence of food-borne zoonotic diseases and increasing animal husbandry are boosting the demand for vaccines.”

The paper pointed to the potential of the mRNA platform to treat diseases like African swine fever, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, foot-and-mouth disease virus, bovine viral diarrhea virus, lumpy skin disease virus, bovine leukemia virus and peste des petits ruminants virus, among others.

A recent white paper, “The Future of Livestock Vaccines,” by researchers at the Livestock Research Innovation Corporation, Ontario, Canada, summed up the shift in thinking about animal vaccines:

“New technologies (e.g. mRNA, artificial intelligence) will have dramatic impact on the availability and effectiveness of vaccines available to producers. …

“The current COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons, including the fact that the development, mass production and approval process of vaccines could be shortened from several years (or decades) to 8-9 months.”

“Good health starts with biosecurity,” the authors stated.

Iowa State teams up with Merck — with help from the U.S. government

Iowa State University and Merck last year announced a four-year strategic alliance to research “emerging technologies” in animal health.

Their joint research project to develop mRNA vaccine technology to prevent bovine RSV, as stated above, is funded in part by the U.S. government.

The study aims to develop a novel mRNA platform that is cost-efficient and thermostable in order to “open the door for vaccinating production animals with this technology.”

The project seeks to develop the platform for a bovine RSV vaccine “as a proof of principle for development of vaccines against this pathogen but also as a platform technology for other vaccines as well.”

In 2018, Merck Animal Health introduced Sequivity technology, “a revolutionary swine vaccine platform,” according to its website, to customize vaccines for various swine viruses using RNA particle technology.

The technology consists of creating electronic gene sequences for a given disease, synthesizing them into RNA, inserting them into the platform and injecting them into the animal. The RNA provides instructions to the immune cells to translate the sequence into proteins, which act as antigens.

Merck scientists developed the technology in partnership with Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Gates Foundation among funders of vaccines for livestock

For decades, concentrated animal feedlot operations, known as CAFOs, used antibiotics to help prevent bacterial infections from spreading through farm spaces densely packed with animals. The antibiotics also make animals grow faster.

After years of growing public concern about the use of antibiotics in meat production — particularly for the antibiotic residues they leave and their role in the development of drug-resistant “superbugs” — the World Health Organization in 2017 developed a set of guidelines and best practices on the use of medically important antimicrobials in animals raised for food.

That same year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began regulatory measures to prevent the use of livestock antibiotics for growth purposes and required farmers who wanted to use antibiotics to get them from veterinarians.

The FDA finalized that guidance in 2021.

In an effort to reduce the use of publicly spurned antibiotics and to deal with the problem of viral infections common in industrial livestock production, meat producers turned to vaccines.

“Vaccines and other alternative products can help minimize the need for antibiotics by preventing and controlling infectious diseases in animal populations, and are central to the future success of animal agriculture,” according to a 2018 article in Veterinary Research.

Animal vaccines commonly require a lower level of scrutiny than vaccines for humans.

According to a 2016 Bloomberg report, industry leaders like Elanco, Eli Lilly, Merck Animal Health and Zoetis began shifting billions of dollars of research investments from antibiotics to vaccines in advance of the 2017 FDA regulatory measures.

Experts predicted the new regulations would cause the market for vaccines to explode.

A 2022 report by Acumen showed that other major pharmaceutical companies, including Ceva, Boehringer Ingelheim International GmbH, Neogen Corporation, Intas Pharmaceuticals, Zoetis, Biogénesis Bagó and Pfizer are heavily investing in the animal vaccine industry.

“The future of our company is heavily grounded in vaccine development,” Dr. Rick Sibbel, a veterinarian who ran Merck’s technical services for cattle, poultry and swine, told Bloomberg.

The U.K.’s Department for International Development partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund livestock vaccines around the world, the department tweeted in 2018:

That partnership included a $40 million grant in 2017 to develop new livestock vaccines. Gates Foundation funding to CGIAR, “global research partnership for a food-secure future dedicated to transforming food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis,” continues to focus on shifting livestock producers from using antibiotics to vaccines.

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