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CSIRO teams up with US biotech firm to develop African swine fever vaccine

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Adam PoulsenCountryman
Australian scientists are helping to finalise a vaccine for African swine fever.
Camera IconAustralian scientists are helping to finalise a vaccine for African swine fever. Credit: Danella Bevis/Countryman

Australian scientists are helping to finalise a vaccine for African swine fever as the devastating pandemic — which could cost the nation’s economy $2.5 billion — spreads across Asia-Pacific.

The team from Australia’s national science agency the CSIRO is evaluating a promising new DNA vaccine candidate developed by US biotech firm MBF Therapeutics.

Australia has never had an ASF outbreak but the virus has recently spread through Asia and is now found in Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.

ASF expert David Williams — group leader of diagnostics and mammalian infectious disease research at the CSIRO — said scientists had yet to develop a “completely safe and effective” vaccine.

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“While first-generation vaccines have recently been approved for use in some parts of Asia, these are weakened live virus vaccines, which have potential to revert back to a disease-causing form and can cause side effects in sows and pigs with infections or other illnesses,” Dr Williams said.

CSIRO diagnostics and mammalian infectious disease research project leader David Williams.
Camera IconCSIRO diagnostics and mammalian infectious disease research project leader David Williams. Credit: CSIRO

The work is taking place at the CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) — a high biocontainment facility in Geelong designed to safely enable research into the world’s most dangerous diseases.

Dr Williams said it was one of the few labs in the world that could safely work with the virus.

“We’ll be bringing all our diagnostic tools, reagents and research capability to this challenge, and learning from the experience for future research,” he said.

MBF Therapeutics chief executive Thomas Tillet said the vaccine was based on technology adapted from immunotherapeutic treatment of human cancer, and aimed to eliminate pathogens as they entered the body.

He said the partnership with the CSIRO provided a rare opportunity to work towards “a truly safe and effective” ASF vaccine.

“MBF Therapeutics’ ultimate goal is to create a vaccine that can be used safely in all stages of swine production, including sows, while preventing disease in individual animals and limiting transmission within the herd and environment,” Mr Tillet said.

Thought to be the worst livestock pandemic in history, ASF is a contagious viral disease of pigs that can kill up to 100 per cent of infected animals.

It is estimated a large-scale outbreak in Australia could cost the national economy more than $2.5b, caused in part by a loss of access to overseas markets for pork products.

Outbreaks in Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Pacific have prompted the culling of millions of pigs, devastating pork industries and farmers’ incomes.

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