by: Heather Smith Thomas

Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is caused by a virus that is highly contagious in cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Countries that don't have this disease are diligent to try to keep it out. Thus FMD has a significant impact on global livestock trade economics. There are extensive regulatory programs in the U.S. to facilitate identification of, response to, and control of this disease if it should ever appear in this country. With one in every nine Americans employed in agriculture or related industries, the effects of FMD outbreak in the U.S. would be devastating, and estimated at nearly $200 billion in lost revenue over 10 years across the affected industries. There are a number of ongoing research projects regarding FMD.

On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) announced the licensing of a rapid-response (three-hour) FMD diagnostic kit. The kit was developed in a team effort by federal agencies, academia and animal health industry scientists, and recently licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB).

This is the first licensed FMD diagnostic kit that can be manufactured on the U.S. mainland. It could help facilitate rapid response in the event of FMD outbreak in this country. The diagnostic test can be used for cattle, swine, and sheep, and will be commercialized and sold by Veterinary Medical Research and Development (VMRD), Inc., a U.S. manufacturer of veterinary diagnostics.

This rapid, specific, and sensitive diagnostic assay was developed and validated over a seven year period by scientists at Texas A&M University and the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases in College Station, Texas (a DHS S&T Center of Excellence); DHS S&T's Plum Island Animal Disease Center, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and USDA Agricultural Research Service Foreign Animal Disease Research Unit--through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with VMRD, Inc. The funding for this development and validation was provided by the Agriculture Defense Branch of DHS S&T's Chemical and Biological Defense Division and DHS S&T Office of University Programs. DHS S&T also granted an intellectual property license to VMRD, Inc. for the test. A patent application has been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Cattlemen in the U.S. are fearful that we may eventually see FMD in this country, so having the ability to quickly diagnose FMD would definitely benefit our livestock industry, according to Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA. Suspicious cases could be tested to see if the animal has FMD or something else. “There are other diseases that have similar symptoms, like vesicular stomatitis,” he explains.

“Having a rapid diagnostic test is good news. What is missing from this news, however, is the importance of more critical measures to ensure that we don't introduce this virus into our U.S. livestock herds. There are some gaps in our security. There doesn't appear to be any stop to USDA's effort to continually expose us to more and more risks from more and more countries with FMD. Argentina, Brazil, and Namibia are just the most recent examples,” he says.

“This exposure is reckless, because we have already estimated the potential damage to our economy ($200 billion dollars) and it could literally devastate our U.S. cattle industry. We have more to lose than any other country because we are the largest producer of beef, and the largest consumer of beef. We have much more to lose than any developing country that has not made the investment that we have made, to eradicate FMD from within our borders. We should not be exposing our livestock to an unnecessary and avoidable risk from these countries where the virus is known to be circulating,” he explains.

Even though there are some vaccines for FMD, there are some problems with vaccination. Also, there can be carriers of the virus that don't show signs of illness. “To protect livestock, you must have a vaccine that matches the specific type of virus that might occur in a particular area. There are many different variations and the vaccine has to match the particular variation of FMD or it is ineffective,” says Bullard.

“This is why FMD is such a difficult disease to contain when it first spreads. The only effective way to halt it is to shut commerce down around a large perimeter where the outbreak occurred and hope that the wind won't blow it 40 miles beyond that perimeter, because it can be carried by wind, birds, and on equipment, machinery, tires, etc. This is why it can spread so rapidly,” he explains.

“On the one hand, we support efforts to improve our ability to contain FMD in the event of an inadvertent outbreak, but we are very concerned that we are not doing enough to ensure that we do not import this disease into our country.”

The South Korean outbreak was attributed to human transmission—people going and coming. This is one reason we do need a diagnostic test, to make sure any suspicious case is or is not FMD, but the important thing is to keep it from arriving here in the U.S. in the first place.

“One example of how we are increasing the likelihood of an outbreak in the U.S. is the fact we are moving our research facility from Plum Island, New York into the beef belt, to Manhattan, Kansas. We are now going to be conducting live FMD virus research right in the heart of our cattle country, which makes no sense to us, especially since the Plum Island research facility has had inadvertent releases of the FMD virus. That island is an isolated area, however, and the prevailing winds took the virus out across the Atlantic Ocean and it was not a problem,” says Bullard.

“When the National Academy of Sciences did one of their risk assessments of the Manhattan, Kansas proposal, their conclusion was that it was as likely as not that there would be an inadvertent release of the FMD virus within the 50-year expected life of the facility. That's when USDA-APHIS and Homeland Security committed another billion or so dollars to beef it up. The most likely cause of an inadvertent release, however, is human error (and that can happen in spite of beefed-up security), like what happened with the anthrax outbreak. It is unnecessarily risky to conduct this research right in the heart of beef country. It should be maintained on an island like it is now,” he says.

There is always the accidental/human error risk, and also the risk for acts of terrorism that would release disease pathogens from a facility. “I am not sure when the expected completion date is, for this new facility, but it's fairly soon; they've been working at it for a couple of years now.”

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