A U.S. government watchdog’s latest report says America’s swine and cattle populations are vulnerable to the highly contagious, deadly foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).
According to the USDA, the agency may not have a sufficient supply of FMD vaccine to control more than a small outbreak because of limited resources to obtain vaccine, the Government Accountability Office report said. An epidemic could prove costly to not only the nation’s livestock industry, but also the federal government.
The current vaccine supply would be sufficient to protect about 14% of Texas’s cattle or about 4% of Iowa’s swine herd. These states’ cattle and swine populations are the nation’s largest.
FMD is a viral disease that is not harmful to humans, but can be fatal in younger animals. It causes painful lesions on the hooves and mouths of some livestock, making it difficult for them to stand or eat, thus greatly reducing meat and milk production. FMD is found roughly in about two-thirds of the world, but the U.S. hasn’t experienced an outbreak since 1929. The U.S. is vulnerable to FMD transmission, given the large size and mobility of the U.S. livestock sector.
“An FMD outbreak in the U.S. could have serious economic impacts, in part because trade partners would likely halt all imports of U.S. livestock and livestock products until the disease was eradicated,” the GAO said in the report published last week.
With exports of U.S. swine, cattle and dairy products totaling more than $19 billion in 2017, the GAO warned that those shipments after an outbreak “would likely stop or be sharply reduced. Moreover, in a widespread outbreak, the scale of federal compensation payments could be substantial.”
USDA Response to Outbreaks
In the event of an FMD or other foreign animal disease outbreak, USDA APHIS, in coordination with state and industry partners, would conduct surveillance, perform epidemiologic tracing and diagnostic testing, apply quarantines and stop-movement orders, employ biosecurity measures, stamp out infected animals and vaccinate uninfected animals, and compensate owners, the GAO report said.
Response strategies would likely change as an outbreak unfolds and might vary by region or type of animal affected, according to APHIS planning documents.
APHIS has taken important steps to mitigate challenges it may face in responding to an outbreak. For example, the agency has developed an extensive collection of strategy and guidance documents, held FMD preparedness exercises to practice response activities, and identified dozens of corrective actions and completed some of these actions. However, APHIS has not yet completed other corrective actions, including actions that have been identified multiple times, such as developing a process for prioritizing and allocating the limited supply of FMD vaccine.
“USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service understands the importance of preparing for the possibility of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United States,” USDA said in a statement. “This disease would have a significant impact on our livestock industry and our farmers and ranchers.
Farm Bill Support for FMD Vaccine Bank
The 2018 Farm Bill signed into law in December by President Donald Trump included more funding for USDA’s animal health and disease preparedness programs, such as money for an expanded animal vaccine bank for FMD. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers (NPPC) Council, among others, were pleased to see authorization of a new FMD vaccine bank.
“The United States has been ill-prepared to deal with a foreign animal disease outbreak for quite some time,” says Dustin Baker, NPPC director of eco and domestic production issues. “The farm bill’s multifaceted approach to surveillance, diagnostics and vaccines is critical to safeguard the health and well-being of our animals, rural economies and the safety of the food supply.”
The GAO report faulted the USDA’s APHIS agency for failing to complete certain corrective actions that it said were identified multiple times, including “developing a process for prioritizing and allocating the limited supply of FMD vaccine. Because of the limited supply of vaccine and the potentially high demand for it, USDA would likely face the challenge of deciding how to allocate it in an FMD outbreak.”
With a vaccine that is matched to the appropriate FMD subtype, a single dose can protect cattle for 6 months, and two doses are required to provide the same protection to swine, the GAO said. APHIS’s 2016 FMD vaccination policy states that 25 million doses for each of 10 subtypes of the virus is an appropriate minimum target to have available. However, the U.S. currently has access to only 1.75 million doses of each subtype available in the vaccine bank, according to USDA documents.
With the large number of FMD subtypes present around the world, and because the FMD virus is constantly mutating, the GAO report said it is possible that an FMD subtype could be introduced in the U.S. that is not covered by vaccines currently in the vaccine bank.
According to a representative from an FMD vaccine manufacturer, producing a vaccine for a new subtype of FMD could take from 6 to 18 months, the GAO said.
“USDA faces challenges in obtaining vaccine and using it in a response effort because of scientific, procedural, and infrastructure challenges related to the vaccine and its production,” the GAO said.
Few vaccine manufacturers in the world have the capacity to produce most of the FMD vaccine subtypes and meet the quality standards required by the U.S., according to agency officials. In addition, there is no production capacity at this time for FMD vaccine in the U.S. because dedicated infrastructure is not in place to produce vaccines without live virus.
The GAO report concluded that APHIS has taken important steps to prepare for an FMD outbreak and to mitigate challenges it may face in responding to one. However, more work is needed. Two recommendations were made to USDA. They include:
1. The Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service should follow the agency’s SOP to prioritize corrective actions for FMD preparedness.
2. The Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service should follow the agency’s SOP to monitor progress and track completion of corrective actions for FMD preparedness.
Greg Ibach, USDA Under Secretary of marketing and regulatory programs, said USDA agrees with GAO’s recommendations and will follow the agency’s SOPs to prioritize corrective actions and monitor progress and track completion of corrective actions for FMD preparedness.