Scissors and crazy glue: Lorne Babiuk, award-winning vaccine evangelist, speaks his (clear) mind in Ottawa

Vish Nene and new ILRI Board Member

Director of ILRI’s vaccine development program Vish Nene (left) with Canadian vaccinologist and ILRI board member Lorne Babiuk (right) at morning tea with ILRI staff (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Canadian Lorne Babiuk, an internationally recognized leader in vaccine research, visited the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa yesterday (8 Oct 2013) to deliver a live webcast talk on exciting breakthroughs in the development of animal vaccines, which, he argued, can both improve global food security and reduce the global impacts of infectious diseases.

Babiuk is vice-president of research at the University of Alberta and the recipient of two recent distinguished awards for his outstanding career in vaccinology — the Gairdner Wightman Award in 2012 and the Killam Prize in Health Sciences in 2013. He serves on the board of trustees of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

For all his illustrious awards, Babiuk talked not like a scientist but rather like ‘a regular guy’, preferring to speak of  ‘scissors’ and ‘crazy glue’ to describe molecular advances in vaccinology rather than use scientific jargon.

Here’s some of what he said.

ON POVERTY
One billion people go to bed hungry every night. Not hungry like you and me when we miss a meal. But hungry, really hungry, every day, day in and day out. By 2050, we’ll have another 2 billion people to feed. The last time I checked, they were not making more land. So we’re going to have to do more with the land (and livestock) that we have. We have an opportunity to develop new approaches to increase food supplies or to have a lot more hungry people.

The developing world is looking for more and more protein; those of us in the developed world should not deny them that.

Livestock are a critical component of smallholder farming, which supports about two billion people, some two-thirds of them women

ON DISEASE
I’ve spent my career in infectious diseases. They matter partly because they cost so much. Alberta has still not recovered from BSE. And SARS cost a staggering USD100 billion—USD2 billion in Ontario alone.

Some 74% of new or emerging diseases are ‘zoonotic’, which means they’re transmitted from animals to humans, or from humans to animals. The economic impacts of zoonoses are huge for farmers, for producers, for international traders . . .

ON DISEASES OF THE DEVELOPING WORLD
I have concerns about Rift Valley fever spreading to North America. The West Nile virus, which has the same kind of vector, has already arrived here.

ON BIOTECH
Technology and biotechnology can be a saviour, but it’s a challenge because we have a large number of people against genetically modified food. We have to work with social scientists to make sure we have healthy animals for healthy people

ON RESEARCH
Basic research and applied research are two sides of the same coin—the two of them need each other.
We no longer train our biologists in broad biology but rather in narrower molecular biology studies. That’s a mistake.
We biological scientists must get smarter at engaging social science and scientists.

ON VACCINES
Vaccination has saved more lives than all other treatments and prophylactics combined.
The traditional types of vaccines, live or killed, have given way to really interesting new types.
We eradicated smallpox with a vaccine; that research would never be approved today because the vaccine has too many side effects.
What can we do to change perceptions of vaccines and biotechnology?
It costs something in the order of one billion dollars to get a vaccine approved.

ON VACCINES FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD
The major obstacle in Africa is to get a commercial company to invest in the regulatory component of a vaccine because there isn’t a financial incentive. You can’t sell a livestock vaccine for much more then 50 cents per dose in a developing countries. That’s why we have to work with African or Asian vaccine companies, which can produce vaccines much cheaper than industrial countries can.

Several diseases in the developing world are protozoan and those are, of course, much bigger challenges. But there have been new donors for protozoan vaccine research. We need to convince more donors that this research is needed.

ON THE ANTI-VACCINE LOBBY
I’m an evangelist for vaccination because I think we have lost the battle to the anti-vaccine lobby. In North Amercia there is a huge anti-tech group. They misquote or use data to push their own agenda at the expense of large numbers of lives lost. Look at the article published decades ago about a possible link between vaccination and autism. Despite decades of subsequent research showing no such links, we still haven’t managed to convince a lot of people that vaccines do not cause autism.

How do we encourage the scientific community to stand up and be more vocal about what they know? We have to continue to advocate and demonstrate what we can do using the new technology. We should promise less and deliver more. We have been our own worst enemies. We have to be realists and say what can be done in what time period. That will give us back some credibility.

People go into science because they like doing the science part of it. If they loved the podium, they would have gone into the social sciences. We need to encourage others to do this kind of communication.

ON TEAM DYNAMICS
Any successful researcher has to stimulate the team around him or her and make them all feel part of something big. Getting people excited about working together as a team, providing a vision, and saying how the team can achieve something, that’s what I’m good at. Get people passionate about something and get them to know it’s their idea. I’m a facilitator. I don’t tell people what to do. I create an environment that facilitates what they do. You have to accept different cultures, different ways of doing science. You have to have patience and go with the flow. I learned patience.

ON HIS SUCCESSFUL CAREER
I still get up in the morning and put one leg in my pants and then the other, just like everyone else.

About CIFSRF
Lorne Babiuk manages a grant funded by the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF), among others. CIFSRF is a CA$124.5-million program of IDRC undertaken with financial support from the Government of Canada. CIFSRF supports applied research partnerships between Canadian and developing-country organizations to find lasting solutions to hunger and food insecurity. It is a core element of Canada’s Food Security Strategy.

For more information, see the IDRC website.

Experts meet to share tactics in fight against ‘goat plague’: Filmed highlights

 

Watch this short (3:50 minutes) film on the views of participants at a recent meeting to coordinate research strategies for a disease of small ruminants known as peste des petits ruminants, or PPR. This second meeting of the Global Peste de Petits Ruminants (PPR) Research Alliance, held 29–30 April 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, brought together over 60 livestock experts from across the world.

The harm caused by PPR, also known as ‘goat plague’ because it is closely related to ‘cattle plague’, or rinderpest, has been increasing in recent years, especially across Africa and Asia. This infectious viral disease of sheep and goats poses a major threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. The disease is highly contagious, with roughly an 80 per cent mortality rate in acute cases.

‘We’re bringing together the relevant animal health experts so that we can find ways to better coordinate the diverse research on PPR, and determine the fastest and most effective and efficient ways to better control it in different developing-country regions and circumstances’, said Geoff Tooth, the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya.

The meeting was co-hosted by four institutions: the African Union-Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-ILRI Hub (BecA-ILRI Hub) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

A current AusAID-funded project being conducted by the BecA-ILRI Hub and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organisation (CSIRO) has supported development of a thermostable vaccine that is now being piloted in vaccination campaigns in Sudan and Uganda, with similar work proposed for Ethiopia.

Read more about efforts to develop a pan-African strategy to fight goat plague: http://www.ilri.org/node/1344

Alliance meeting this week to battle global ‘goat plague’

Northern Kenya August 2008

The PPR virus, commonly known as goat plague, swept across southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya in 2008; Mohammed Noor lost 20 goats in the just one week and wondered how he would provide for his family (photo on Flickr by EC/ECHO/Daniel Dickinson).

Assembling for two days this week (29–30 Apr 2013) in Nairobi, Kenya, are members of a global alliance against ‘peste des petits ruminants’, abbreviated as ‘PPR’ and also known as ‘goat plague’ and ‘ovine rinderpest’.

Co-hosting this second meeting of the Global Peste de Petits Ruminants (PPR) Research Alliance (hereafter referred to as GPRA) are the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is headquartered in Nairobi; the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-iLRI hub (BecA-ILRI Hub), hosted and managed by ILRI; the African Union-Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), also based in Nairobi; and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

Among the 70 or so people attending are representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGFYi Cao), the Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines (GALVMedBapti Dungu), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEAAdama Diallo), the Pan African Veterinary Vaccine Centre (PANVAC), the Royal Veterinary College of the University of London Vet School (RVC), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOVincent Martin and Robert Allport, among others), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIEJemi Domenech and Walter Masiga) and a range of national research institutions from developing countries where the disease is endemic.

What’s this alliance all about?
The GPRA is a participant-owned network of researchers and development professionals with an interest in the progressive control of PPR. The GPRA was inaugurated in 2012 at a meeting in London. GPRA aims to provide scientific and technical knowledge towards methods for the detection, control and eradication of PPR that are economically viable, socially practical and environmentally friendly.

Why, and how much, does PPR matter?
Infectious diseases remain the major limitation to livestock production globally and are a particular scourge in the developing world, where most of the world’s livestock are raised. Diseases not only kill farm animals but also cause production losses and hinder access to potentially high-value international livestock markets.

PPR, an infectious viral disease of sheep and goats, poses a major threat to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa as well as the Middle East and India. The disease is highly contagious, and has roughly an 80 per cent mortality rate in acute cases.

The impacts of PPR, which is closely related to rinderpest in cattle, have been expanding in recent years. At least 15 million sheep and goats are at risk of death from the disease in Kenya alone and the estimated economic impact of current PPR outbreaks—including production losses and disease control costs for Africa—is more than US$147 million per year. A recent outbreak of PPR in the Marakwet and Baringo districts of Kenya destroyed more than 2000 herds, with the disease spreading in days and farmers losing some KShs6 million (about US$70,000)  to the disease over about three months.

PPR is probably the most important killer of small ruminant populations in affected areas and some 65 per cent of the global small ruminant population is at risk from PPR.

Increasing interest in tackling PPR
Over the last several years, international experts and national authorities have both been increasingly prioritizing the progressive control of PPR, with the first phase designed to contribute to the long-term goal of eradication. Donor interest in this research and development area quickly ramped up over the past year. A current AusAID-funded project being conducted under a partnership between the BecA-ILRI Hub and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organisation (CSIRO) has supported development of a thermostable vaccine now being piloted in vaccination campaigns in Sudan and Uganda, with similar work proposed for Ethiopia.

Collins Owino, ILRI research technician

Collins Owino, an ILRI research technician working on vaccines and diagnostics in the peste des petits ruminants (PPR) project (photo credit: ILRI/Evelyn Katingi).

Need for coordinated and progressive control of PPR
There is a growing recognition of the need for, and potential benefits of, a coordinated approach to the progressive control of PPR. The disease is now one of the high priorities of AU-IBAR, FAO and OIE, all of which have strong networks and expertise to offer the alliance. The role of the Global PPR Research Alliance as a network of research and development organizations is to develop a coordinated strategy to contribute to the progressive control of PPR.

The Australian Government, together with AU-IBAR and ILRI, is supporting the second meeting of the GPRA to advance with many other stakeholders progressive global control of PPR, particularly through collaborative research. The GPRA supports the sharing of relevant information and results, the establishment of productive working relationships among stakeholders, the establishment of research and development projects of interest to some or all members, and the closer linking of strategic plans of all stakeholders in better control of this disease.

Is progressive eradication of PPR possible?
Wide calls for PPR’s progressive global eradication cite the following factors supporting this goal:

  • The close relationship of PPR/’goat plague’ with the recently eradicated ‘cattle plague’ known as ‘rinderpest’ (rinderpest was only the second infectious disease, and the first veterinary disease, to be eradicated from the globe)
  • The availability of effective vaccines against PPR
  • The development of heat-stable PPR vaccines, following the same procedures that were so effective in developing a heat-stable rinderpest vaccine
  • The opportunity to increase focus on Africa and Asia’s small ruminants, which are of critical importance to the livelihoods of rural smallholder and pastoralist communities in many of the world’s poorest countries
  • The existence of vaccines and diagnostics considered sufficient to initiate the program; the current vaccines (based on the strain Nigeria 75/1) are safe, efficacious and provide life-long immunity.

More about the AusAID-funded PPR project at the BecA-ILRI Hub
The Australian Government via AusAID has funded development at ILRI of thermostable formulations of the PPR vaccine that provide a level of stability in the field as high as that demonstrated in the vaccine used to eradicate rinderpest. The project team has demonstrated that the PPR vaccine can be stored without refrigeration for extended periods of time without significant loss in viability. This is a crucial and significant success. Under the guidance of ILRI senior scientist Jeff Mariner and with the assistance of Australia’s CSIRO and BecA-ILRI Hub staff, the project team have developed strong links with AU-IBAR’s Henry Wamwayi, a senior member of his organization seconded to the PPR project.

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner at OIE meeting

ILRI veterinary epidemiologist Jeff Mariner presenting lessons learned from work to eradicate rinderpest at a meeting of the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) (photo credit: OIE).

Next steps
The project has built on lessons learned from the recent global eradication of rinderpest, which depended on two equally important breakthroughs for its success: development of an effective thermostable vaccine and effective vaccine delivery networks in remote as well as other regions. The next 12 months of the PPR research project will focus on testing the vaccine and delivery strategies in South Sudan and Uganda. Staff will assess in the field just how effective the vaccine is in controlling PPR infections. They’ll also investigate some practical incentives for encouraging livestock owners and livestock service delivery personnel to participation in PPR control programs. And they’ll look into ways to build and enhance public-private community partnerships to deliver the PPR vaccine.

Read more in the ILRI News Blog and science journals about the close connections between the eradication of rinderpest and this new battle against PPR—and the role of ILRI’s Jeff Mariner in development of thermostable vaccines necessary to win the battle against both diseases.

Rinderpest: Scourge of pastoralists defeated, at long last, by pastoralists, 18 Sep 2012.

New analysis in ‘Science’ tells how the world eradicated deadliest cattle plague from the face of the earth, 13 Sep 2012.

Goat plague next target of veterinary authorities now that cattle plague has been eradicated, 4 Jul 2011.

Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth—’greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’, 28 Jun 2011.

 

 

New analysis in ‘Science’ tells how world eradicated deadliest cattle plague from the face of the Earth

Afar community animal health worker

In a new analysis in Science, ILRI researcher Jeffrey Mariner describes how the world eradicated deadliest cattle plague, the second such success after smallpox. The authors of the paper reveal the essential role of Africa’s nomadic herders in ridding the world of rinderpest. Above, an Afar community animal health worker in 1993 describes the appearance and characteristics of rinderpest in cattle (photo by Jeff Mariner).

A new analysis published today in Science traces the recent global eradication of the deadliest of cattle diseases, crediting not only the development of a new, heat-resistant vaccine, but also the insight of local African herders, who guided scientists in deciding which animals to immunize and when. The study provides new insights into how the successful battle against rinderpest in Africa, the last stronghold of the disease, might be applied to similar diseases that today ravage the livestock populations on which the livelihoods of one billion of the world’s poor depend.

Capable of wiping out a family’s cattle in just a few days, rinderpest was declared vanquished in May 2011. After smallpox, it is only the second disease (and first livestock disease) ever to be eradicated from the earth.

‘The elimination of rinderpest is an enormous triumph against a disease that has plagued animals and humankind for centuries’, said Jimmy Smith, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). ‘Science succeeded despite limited resources, and we now know how. We are committed to applying the lessons in this study to making progress against other similarly destructive livestock diseases.’

According to the analysis, which was conducted by international scientists coordinated by ILRI, and published this week in Science, the eradication of rinderpest happened thanks to the development of an effective temperature-stable vaccine, collaborations between veterinary health officials and cattle farmers to deliver those vaccines, and reliance on the knowledge and expertise of the local herders to determine the location and movement of outbreaks.

The cattle plague and its path of destruction
Rinderpest, known as ‘cattle plague’ in English, is thought to have had its origin in the dense cattle herds of Central Eurasia more than two millennia ago and subsequently spread through warfare and trade to cattle in Europe, Asia and eventually Africa. Caused by a virus related to the one that causes measles and canine distemper, rinderpest could infect cows, water buffalos and other cloven-hoofed animals, leading to a high fever, severe diarrhea, then dehydration and emaciation. The pathogen could kill 90 per cent of a herd, wiping out an entire farm’s livestock in just a matter of days. There was no treatment.

While rinderpest is not dangerous to human health, its impact on humanity has been significant. Its path of destruction has been linked to many history-changing events such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution and famines throughout Africa since the 19th century. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the rural poor and some one-third of the urban poor depend on livestock for their food, income, traction, manure or other services. Livestock provide poor households with up to half their income and between 6 and 35 per cent of their protein consumption. The loss of a single milking animal can affect a family’s economic health, while depriving it of a primary source of nutrition.

Road to eradication
The first major contributing factor to eradication, as identified by the analysis, was a major improvement made to an existing rinderpest vaccine. While the original vaccine was safe, effective, affordable, and easy to produce, it needed to be refrigerated—making it nearly impossible to transport it to remote rural villages. With the development of a new heat-resistant vaccine formulation in 1990 that could be stored at 37 °C for eight months, and in the field without refrigeration for 30 days, scientists had a tool that would become the cornerstone of the eradication effort in remote pastoral areas of Africa.

But according to ILRI’s Jeffrey Mariner, the analysis’ lead author and inventor of the temperature-stable rinderpest vaccine, it was the role played by pastoralists that really turned rinderpest on its head.

As part of a public-private-community partnership, Mariner and colleagues trained what they called community-based animal health workers, or CAHWs—local pastoralists who were willing to travel on foot and able to work in remote areas—on how to deliver the new vaccine. These CAHWs carried the vaccine from herd to herd, immunizing all the cattle in their communities.

The local herders performed as well, if not better, than did veterinarians at vaccinating the herds—in fact often achieving higher than 80 per cent herd immunity in a short time—remarkable for a disease that had plagued most of the world for millennia. Indeed, it turned out that the pastoralists were not only very, very good at delivering the vaccine, but that they also knew more about the disease and how to stop it than many of the experts.

‘We soon discovered that the livestock owners knew more than anyone—including government officials, researchers or veterinarians—where outbreaks were occurring’, Mariner said. ‘It was their expertise about the sizes of cattle herds, their location, seasonal movement patterns and optimal time for vaccination that made it possible for us to eradicate rinderpest.’

Based on their immense expertise about migratory patterns and in recognizing early signs of infection, the herders were able to pinpoint, well before scientists ever could, where some of the final outbreaks were occurring—often where conventional surveillance activities had failed to disclose disease. Harnessing this knowledge of rinderpest through ‘participatory surveillance’ of outbreaks to CAHW delivery of vaccination proved to be the most successful approach to monitoring and controlling the disease. It effectively removed the disease from some of the hardest-to-reach, but also most disease-ridden, communities.

Applying rinderpest lessons to other diseases
While livestock and those who depend on them for food, transportation and economic stability are now safe from one major pathogen, they continue to be plagued by a number of other dangerous and debilitating diseases—some as deadly as rinderpest.

The international animal health community is now gearing up to address the next major constraint to livestock livelihoods in Africa and Asia. In their analysis, Mariner and colleagues consider how the lessons learned from battling rinderpest can be applied to protect livestock from other infectious agents—particularly peste des petits ruminants (PPR), also known as ‘goat plague’. Strategies to address PPR using the lessons from rinderpest have been developed and action is under way to mobilize international support for a coordinated program to tackle PPR. As a next step, ILRI and the Africa Union/Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources are planning to host the next meeting of the PPR Alliance, a partnership of research and development organizations who prioritize PPR, in Nairobi in early 2013.

A dangerous virus that can destroy whole flocks of sheep and goats, PPR threatens livestock owners in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, in particular. As with rinderpest, a sheep or goat infected with PPR will come down with a high fever and will stop eating, leading to severe diarrhea and death. Eventually, it will take down the entire herd of the animals, which are equal to cattle in their importance to the poor. And controlling PPR is made challenging by the short life span and heavy trading of sheep and goats—making it difficult to keep the disease in check and preventing its spread to new areas.

Nonetheless, the lessons of rinderpest eradication have begun to have an impact on the toll exacted by goat plague. Participatory surveillance methods are now applied in many countries, CAHWs are now frequently involved in vaccination campaigns and ILRI has developed a temperature-stable vaccine that can be transported to rural farms and has started to put into place training programs for shepherds and farmers in Uganda and Sudan to deliver it.

Eventually, these same lessons could be applied to other livestock diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease—even some that have recently jumped to humans, like avian flu. Such ‘zoonotic’ diseases are responsible for 2.4 billion cases of human illness and 2.2 million deaths per year, primarily in low- and middle-income countries.

Read the paper in Science (subscription required to read full text): Rinderpest eradication: Appropriate technology and social innovations, by Jeffrey Mariner, James House, Charles Mebus, Albert Sollod, Dickens Chibeu, Bryony Jones, Peter Roeder, Berhanu Admassu, Gijs van ’t Klooster, 14 September 2012, Vol. 337 no. 6100 pp. 1309–1312, DOI: 10.1126/science.1223805.

Read previous articles on this blog about the eradication of rinderpest: Goat plague next target of veterinary authorities now that cattle plague has been eradicated, 4 Jul 2011.

Deadly rinderpest virus today declared eradicated from the earth–’greatest achievement in veterinary medicine’, 28 Jun 2011.

After successful eradication of rinderpest, African researchers now focus on peste des petits ruminants, the most urgent threat to African livestock, 22 Nov 2010.

Why technical breakthroughs matter: They helped drive a cattle plague to extinction, 28 Oct 2010.