As part of our series of conversations with experts at the Congress in Washington last month we were lucky to meet Professor James Roth for an interview about his work on vaccines for transboundary diseases of livestock. He joined us at the Congress to discuss how these are important both for pandemic preparedness and food security. During our discussion he outlines some of the current threats, and how significant animal health is to global health. We are grateful to Professor Roth for his time and hope that you enjoy the interview!
Introducing Professor Roth
Professor Roth kindly outlined his roles as Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University and Director of the Centre for Food Security and Public Health. The centre develops “preparedness materials” for disease outbreaks as well as educational and preparedness resources with federal and state authorities as well as the food-producing livestock industry.
Identifying a need
With recent attention on public health, we identify a growing focus on the relationship between animal and human health. Has this always been relevant, or are we particularly aware of it now? Professor Roth suggests that the need for vaccines and preparedness has “increased” in recent decades. He refers to two examples: HPAI and African Swine Fever. From a US perspective, Professor Roth believes the livestock community should be prepared to meet growing threats from diseases that may spread from other areas.
The importance of these vaccines
After Professor Roth confirmed the need for these vaccines we asked about their main benefits.
“One is food security.”
Professor Roth refers to increases in the price of eggs and pork, partly due to the diseases affecting poultry and pigs. Another benefit that Professor Roth identifies is for zoonotic diseases. For example, although the HPAI that we are seeing across the world has so far had very limited human infection, “which is not too concerning”, it has adapted to affect other mammalian species.
“That is a harbinger that this avian influenza virus could continue to mutate.”
Other zoonotic viruses include Nipah virus and Ebola virus. These infections in pigs are a “warning sign” for Professor Roth.
“We need to be paying attention to Nipah and Ebola as potential emerging, very severe zoonotic diseases.”
Heeding the signs
Next, Professor Roth outlines the importance of recognising the possible dangers and responding early. For African Swine Fever and avian influenza, we are witnessing how “rapidly” diseases can spread “around the world” and “affect food production”. Furthermore, avian influenza has the potential to be a “serious human health hazard”. Finally, Ebola and Nipah getting into pigs in a pig-dense region would be a “huge problem”.
“These are very clearly red flags we need to be paying attention to.”
As these diseases present such a threat to animal and human health, we were interested to learn about the barriers that Professor Roth and his peers have to overcome in order to tackle them. He suggests that there are “several challenges”. One is the “research needed to develop the vaccines”. For example, in the case of avian influenza and Nipah virus, “we know how to make good vaccines for those, but there’s no need for those vaccines today”.
“They haven’t been taken through the safety efficacy studies needed for licensure and then stockpiling.”
We might be wondering what is stopping the progress here, and Professor Roth suggests that, without a clear need, there isn’t “sufficient money” to push forward.
“We may never need them. We may need huge quantities in a hurry, and that’s a real problem.”
Other challenges arise with “difficult” viruses like African Swine Fever.
“Some viruses are very easy; some are very difficult.”
On the positive side, Professor Roth does believe that progress is being made by researchers at the USDA, but a vaccine is “still at least a few years away”.
Safety and regulatory processes
For veterinary vaccines, Professor Roth suggests that the development can be “quicker” and cheaper than human vaccines. However, some of the diseases in question are “biosafety level 4 diseases”.
“Having the facilities to conduct the animal challenge studies is a really big problem”.
Furthermore, the vaccines “need to be safe to manufacture”. This requires “new technology”.
“It’s all doable, but the challenge is, mainly funding, and the select agent challenges and other problems with working with some of these viruses, not others.”
Coming to the Congress
Our final question, as always, explores the reasons that our experts are keen to come to the event. For Professor Roth, the opportunity to learn from presentations and roundtable discussions is exciting. He looked ahead to the veterinary sessions.
“I’m really looking forward to that, and being able to speak to that group, and more importantly learn from the people at that group.”
We are so grateful for Professor Roth’s time and valuable insights, and hope to continue our conversation at future events! For more interviews from experts, subscribe to our newsletter here. For more on the Congress last month click here to download the post-event report.