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Agriculture and Environment

Vaccine victory for Africa


How a Canadian virologist helped create a five-in-one livestock vaccine that could transform the lives of millions in Africa


Posted by Alanna Mitchell on May 16, 2017

Lorne Babiuk at the University of Alberta, where he helped develop a livestock vaccine that could improve the lives of millions across Africa. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

Like smallpox in humans, highly contagious viruses can race through livestock populations, killing and sickening cattle, sheep and goats. That’s a big headache if you’ve got thousands of animals on a commercial farm. But it’s an immediate catastrophe if you’ve only got a handful of animals and they’re the main source of your family’s protein and income. That’s the problem in sub-Saharan Africa, when tiny family farms, often run by women, are hit with lethal livestock epidemics.

And while vaccinations against the viruses are available, the barriers against using them in the developing world are high. For one thing, some require multiple doses for each disease. For another, most vaccines need to be kept reliably cold until they’re used.

About four years ago, Lorne Babiuk, a superstar virologist at the University of Alberta, began working on a new type of vaccine with David Wallace and Arshad Mather from the South African Agricultural Research Council’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute. Not only would a single dose guard against several livestock diseases at once, but it would also keep its strength without refrigeration.

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) hadn’t invested in such a basic biology project before, Babiuk says, but decided that the benefits of doing so could be vast. Millions of animals and billions of dollars could be saved. Untold human suffering could be avoided. If it worked, this program could help not just villages and regions, but whole continents, says Kevin Tiessen, a senior program specialist at IDRC. In 2014, IDRC partnered with Global Affairs Canada via the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund to launch the $5-million program and Babiuk headed to the lab.

The focus was on the family Poxvirus, to which smallpox belongs. In cattle, the virus leads to lumpy skin disease; in sheep, it’s sheep pox; in goats, goat pox. Together, the three are common throughout Africa and the Middle East and they’re moving into Eastern Europe. They’re called “neglected” diseases because while common, the ability of small livestock farmers in developing countries to pay more than a few pennies a dose for the vaccines is not. So, for-profit vaccine producers show no interest.

The virus’s large genome had already been mapped and Babiuk’s team worked out how to modify it, snipping out pieces to disable its killing mechanism while inserting other bits to make a vaccine that could inoculate against all three types of pox in a single dose, with no need for refrigeration. When that worked, the team looked at peste des petits ruminants, a virus that wipes out large numbers of goats and sheep. They added another piece of its genetic material into the pox vaccine and made it effective against that fourth disease. “Then we said: ‘OK. Let’s be even smarter,’” Babiuk says.

This infographic depicts the potential benefits to farmers following use of the single vaccine Lorne Babiuk created. (Infographic: T. Chetty, S. Goga & A. Mather, with graphic design by C. Lombard, courtesy of the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa)

So the team looked at Rift Valley fever, a viral disease of cattle, goats and sheep that also strikes humans. It is related to West Nile virus but causes more severe illness. Again, the insertion of its genes into the pox vaccine was successful. The international team had made a five-in-one, singledose, heat-resistant vaccine. It was a breakthrough.

What’s more, it was cheap. A single litre of the vaccine can inoculate a million animals, hopefully for life. Babiuk reckons it will cost just pennies a dose. His goal is for local governments in the region to subsidize the cost for livestock farmers. He’s found that if it’s free, farmers don’t value it and won’t use it. If it’s too expensive, they won’t buy it.

Challenges remain. Babiuk was in Kenya in July 2017 to oversee local production of the vaccine and small trials in the field. Then the vaccine, which will be modified region by region for whichever of the five diseases are prevalent, will need regulatory approval from each country, beginning with Kenya and South Africa.

The lobby against the validity of genetically modified organisms is strong in Africa, and its members have been arguing that the new vaccines should not be used because they are made in a lab. Babiuk’s response is that vaccines for humans and animals have been safely used for 50 years, and he has yet to find a logical, scientific argument that risks exist. In addition, the virus in the vaccine is killed off by the body within two weeks.

With luck, the new single-dose vaccine will leap over regulatory hurdles in key countries within two years, he says. Then, the task will be to teach farmers or their veterinarians how to inject it into their livestock, keeping healthy and alive not just the animals but also the people who depend on them.

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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.

The International Development Research Centre has been a key part of Canada's aid program since 1970, and invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Learn more at idrc.ca.