Disease preparedness comes into focus

By Andrew Heck

Disease-related emergencies are familiar to many in attendance at the Banff Pork Seminar. At least three separate presentations were focused on the threat posed by foreign animal diseases, and just last year, on the first day of the seminar, Alberta announced it had recorded its first-ever case of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED).

Seminar presentation topics under the banner of disease preparedness were delivered by Amy Cronin of Swine Health Ontario, Egan Brockhoff of Prairie Swine Health Services and Alex DeJong of BMO.

In addition to presentations during the seminar, producers from across the country, and some guests from abroad, were invited to take part in a pre-seminar Serious Animal Disease Emergencies workshop through the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) Project. The session was hosted by Alberta Pork and the Canadian Pork Council (CPC).

AHEM workshop prepares producers

Todd Bergen-Henengouwen is the resource development lead for the AHEM project. He also operates a mixed crop farm in southern Alberta.

“We were pleased with the turnout, given that not all guests had arrived in Banff that early, and given that not everyone in attendance at the seminar is a producer,” said Matt Taylor, Project Manager, AHEM. “We felt the seminar was a good opportunity to efficiently attract participants at a time when they were already travelling and prepared to expand their knowledge.”

The goal of the session was to introduce producers to disease prevention strategies that they could take back to their own operations. Producers were also versed in disease response management, to prepare for the unfortunate case that disease should enter their own herds. The event featured an introduction to a new producer handbook, an emergency scenario simulation and networking opportunities.

“For us, the development of this handbook was an important step for our producers,” said Javier Bahamon, Quality Assurance and Production Manager, Alberta Pork. “Resources are great, but they require instruction. Through the AHEM project, producers are able to receive a helpful resource for reference, along with the appropriate training to integrate these strategies into their existing emergency plans.”

The handbook is divided into five sections, which include information on understanding risks to the industry, preparing for disease, responding in the event of an outbreak, and sections for definitions and additional exercises for producers to complete.

So far, handbooks have been customized for pork producers in Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Similarly, handbooks have been customized for beef, dairy, goat and sheep producers across the country.

In 2018, the initial AHEM project team released 13 plans and associated handbooks. In 2019, during the project’s second phase, the development of another 15 plans and handbooks began. The plans provide step-by-step guidance on roles and responsibilities for staff at provincial and national associations, and the handbooks offer clear and concise information for producers.

To promote these resources, the AHEM project kicked off a series of scheduled pork-specific workshops, including a November 2019 session in Red Deer, Alberta and the January 2020 session in Banff, followed by a March 2020 session in Red Deer. Further workshops for pork and other sectors are being planned across Canada.

African Swine Fever is top priority for the Canadian Pork Council

African Swine Fever (ASF) preparedness is a primary concern for the Canadian Pork Council (CPC). Céline Bourbonnais, Communications Manager, CPC provided an update on the organization’s national communications plan in the event of an outbreak, during a CPC board meeting in Banff.

Egan Brockhoff is a veterinarian and partner in Prairie Swine Health Services of Red Deer, Alberta, in addition to serving as a veterinary counselor to the Canadian Pork Council (CPC). Brockhoff’s work takes him to farms across western Canada and even to Asia, where he has witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by African Swine Fever (ASF). He delivered a presentation as part of a breakout session at the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar.

For its part, the CPC is preparing to combat ASF by hosting bi-monthly meetings with Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials to raise awareness and understand what the agency is doing. CPC is also meeting with the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada (ANAC) to explore ways to address the potential risk of imported feed and feed ingredients being contaminated with ASF.

Collaboration is key. CPC regularly communicates with the U.S. National Pork Producers Council and partners in Mexico to share information and work on a unified North American response plan. Through the Canada West Swine Health Intelligence Network (CWSHIN) and other regional partners, information is being shared with veterinarians and producers across the country.

Inching closer to an ASF vaccine

At the same time the Banff Pork Seminar was taking place, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) will embark on new ASF research to further support Canada’s preparedness strategy. This complements ongoing collaborations between the CFIA and VIDO-InterVac aimed at developing and testing vaccines and antivirals for ASF.

“CFIA’s support increases Canada’s international contribution to combat the spread of ASF,” said Volker Gerdts, Director, VIDO-InterVac. “This is a prime example of how this CL3-Ag infrastructure supports national priorities against emerging infectious disease and the development of solutions that mitigate their impact.”

Gerdts was a presenter during one of the seminar’s breakout sessions, during which he provided an overview of VIDO-InterVac’s work and explored the different kinds of viruses and corresponding vaccines from an epidemiological point-of-view.

Several experimental vaccines for ASF have been based on gene-deletion mutants. However, the concern with these vaccines is that, at high doses, they can cause disease by themselves. Because these vaccines use live viruses, vaccinated animals will shed the virus into the environment, which could infect other animals in a pig herd or potentially spread outside a farm and infect wild pigs, which carries a much greater risk for transmission.

In contrast, inactivated vaccines are very safe, as all pathogens have been completely inactivated. However, an inactivated vaccine virus is no longer able to enter the cell, thus appearing to the immune system as an extracellular pathogen, which leads to a suboptimal immune response. In the case of either gene-deletion vaccines or inactivated vaccines, there is no clear answer to the ASF problem.

When vaccines are not available for disease response, the economic impact of that disease is compounded, as we have seen with ASF and PED. Vaccines play a critical role in protecting our industry, but at the same time, practical considerations need to be made for the changing expectations of producers and herd veterinarians. It is essential that novel platform technologies are created to allow for rapid, cost-effective vaccine development, while preserving global trade partnerships and keeping our industry competitive.

Ontario Swine Incident Command Centre stands ready

Amy Cronin explains the biosecurity protocols on her own farm.

Amy Cronin is a Guelph-area hog farmer, mother of six, school board trustee and former board director with Ontario Pork who is part of Swine Health Ontario’s (SHO) Ontario Swine Incident Command Centre. For the past four years, she has also served on the Banff Pork Seminar Advisory Committee.

SHO is a leadership team comprised of representatives from Ontario Pork, the Ontario Pork Industry Council (OPIC), along with ex-officio representation from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

SHO was formed to facilitate a collaborative approach to improving and better coordinating the pork industry’s efforts to prevent, prepare for and respond to serious swine health threats in Ontario. SHO subsequently identified the development of an Ontario Swine Incident Command Centre (OSICC) structure for industry disease response, following the principles of Incident Management Systems (IMS), as a key strategic goal.

Protecting your bottom line in a disease outbreak

Alex DeJong is a Senior Director of Agriculture and Agri-Business at BMO, based in Ontario. He presented on financial planning in the face of foreign animal disease.

Alex handles large and strategic agricultural client relationships across the province, including large cash crop, protein and horticulture producers, as well as grain elevators and input suppliers. He and his team work closely with clients to provide advice, direction and flexible credit structures to meet their specific needs and business goals.

Financial considerations in a disease outbreak are specific to individuals, but in general, the main issue is are likely to be related to cash flow and marketability of hogs. One-month, three-month and six-month plans are recommended to help producers manage in the event that borders close to exports or there are other disruptions to pig movements.

Partnering with your lender is crucial to arriving at a plan that works. It is important to know how you and your lender can work together to support your business during a potential disease outbreak. Financing solutions and other strategies differ between institutions, which is why producers should not hesitate to make appropriate arrangements to protect themselves.