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Innovative livestock vaccine development for the Global South

August 28, 2018

Renée Larocque

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Musa Mulongo

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

Almost one billion of the poorest people on the planet — especially women, minorities, and landless farmers — depend on livestock for their livelihoods. Infectious livestock diseases are responsible for more than 25% of losses in agricultural productivity in developing countries and trap many smallholder farmers in a cycle of poverty. Livestock health is critical in achieving the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) of “no poverty” (#1) and “zero hunger” (#2).

The role of vaccines in animal disease eradication programs

Rinderpest is the only livestock disease that has been successfully eradicated. This highly contagious viral disease, which affects cloven-hoofed animals (mainly cattle and buffalo), was officially eradicated in 2011. At the heart of the eradication program’s success was a highly efficacious vaccine against all strains of the rinderpest virus.

Currently, a new global eradication program is underway and proving to be viable: the Peste des petits ruminants (PPR) Global Eradication Program. PPR is a viral disease that affects small ruminants and has a devastating impact on smallholder communities. The loss of livestock forces pastoralists and rural livestock holders to migrate away from their lands in search of alternative livelihoods. The annual global impact of PPR is estimated to be between US$1.4 billion and US$2.1 billion. Now that a live attenuated vaccine has been developed that confers long-term immunity for all strains of PPR after a single injection, the potential exists to eradicate PPR by 2030.    

While both of these disease eradication programs demonstrate that accessible, affordable, and efficacious vaccines have the potential to altogether erase the threat that livestock diseases pose to the health and livelihoods of smallholder farmers, many other livestock diseases that affect LMICs either don’t have vaccines or those that are available are of poor quality with limited safety and protective capacity.

Advancing vaccine development and use with innovative approaches

Major breakthroughs in biotechnology and vaccinology in the past two decades are presenting prospects for accelerated vaccine discovery, multi-pathogen combination flexibilities, and real time customization to new pathogen strains. There is an urgent need to apply these technologies in livestock vaccine development and to foster partnerships that will accelerate the development and use of new vaccines.

IDRC, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Global Affairs Canada have recognized the urgent need to invest in the development of novel livestock vaccine solutions for diseases that disproportionately affect poor livestock smallholders in LMICs. These partners have jointly established the Livestock Vaccine Innovation Fund (LVIF), a seven-year initiative worth CA$57 million that aims to support the development, production, and commercialization of innovative vaccines against livestock diseases (including poultry) in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.  

LVIF is especially timely because: 

  • livestock play an important role as reservoirs of human infectious diseases (60% of human diseases are caused by pathogens transmitted from livestock);
  • disease-causing pathogens are becoming more complex due to the effects of climate change, thereby presenting unique and unpredictable challenges that require timely and effective intervention;
  • continuous and unregulated use of antimicrobial agents to treat animal infections in LMICs is gradually causing antimicrobial resistance with potentially devastating effects to human and animal health;
  • livestock play an important role in creating and sustaining food security for populations; and
  • there is a threat of emerging infections with potentially high mortality.

Innovative mechanisms are required to accelerate the development of livestock vaccines and to put them in the hands of those who need them at a scale that makes a difference.

These mechanisms include:

  • advancing and leveraging the use of cutting-edge technologies in vaccine development;
  • building greater Southern capacities to control livestock diseases using existing vaccines while strengthening the production and adoption of a new generation of vaccines;
  • increasing financial investment in livestock vaccine research and development;
  • adopting a comprehensive approach to livestock vaccine development from laboratory discovery to access by livestock smallholders; and
  • encouraging public-private partnerships to develop vaccines more quickly and overcome critical bottlenecks in the vaccine value chain.

Combining cutting-edge technologies with public-private partnership to fast-forward vaccine development

The collaborative partnership between Tiba Biotechnology in the USA, the Agricultural Research Council-Ondestepoort Veterinary Institute (ARC-OVI) in South Africa, and the Moredun Research Institute (MRI) in the U.K., is a great example of how IDRC is supporting research projects that encompass all of these mechanisms. Together these partners are jointly developing a new vaccine against foot and mouth disease (FMD), the most contagious viral disease of cloven-hoofed animals. Although it is a low mortality disease, FMD is responsible for losses of up to US$8 million in LMICs every year.  

The partnership will leverage the cutting-edge synthetic RNA vaccine technology from Tiba with world class FMD vaccinology experience from MRI and it will build southern capacities through the ARC-OVI. The expected synthetic RNA vaccine will be easy to produce; thermostable; assembled within two weeks; and it will protect livestock against multiple FMD virus strains. Engagement with regulators, public and private animal health practitioners, and vaccine manufacturers will scale up the production and use of this vaccine.

The LVIF is transforming how vaccines for livestock in LMICs are developed, produced, accessed, and used. This transformation is based on adopting a range of innovative approaches and collaborations that are expected to reduce the duration between vaccine discovery and its availability to livestock smallholders. These approaches are expected to deliver change with greater impact at a scale that will result in improved livelihoods and nutrition for livestock smallholders in LMICs.

Renée Larocque is a senior program specialist and Musa Mulongo is a senior program officer in the Livestock Health branch of IDRC’s Agriculture and Environment program.