Iowa Public Television


Researchers Work On H1N1 Vaccine For Swine

posted on May 8, 2009

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The nation's beleaguered economy digested a throng of reports this week including some signals of a comeback. The Federal Reserve rolled out results of so-called "stress tests" for the nation's largest financial institutions.

Federal number crunchers determined a handful of banks do not need additional government funds. But 10 of the nation's 19 largest banks may need $75 billion to remain solvent in the coming months.

The Labor Department said the pace of layoffs slowed in April as employers cut 539,000 jobs – the smallest figure in six months.

But an uptick in the nation's unemployment rate to 8.9 percent is America's highest since 1983.

Economic figures may have regained a foothold in the nation's consciousness this week but media outlets continue to cover the H1N1 flu outbreak.

Despite assurances that the so-called swine flu CAN NOT be transmitted by eating pork, trade bans on U.S. pork products came down this week. Reports that a Canadian farmer infected his swine herd with H1N1 following a trip to Mexico also rattled agricultural circles. But a group of federal agencies and members of the scientific community are moving quickly to mitigate any fallout to the American pork industry.


Despite more than 2,300 confirmed human cases of H1N1 Flu in 24 countries, results of the so-far mild outbreak have not cropped up in the American swine herd.

But concerns remain among the nation's pork producers that a widespread outbreak of H1N1 in American swine could further damage the industry's worldwide reputation. Early this week, America's second largest pork export market of China placed a trade ban on all U.S. pork products. China is one of 22 countries so far to enforce full or partial bans on U.S. pork which could spell trouble for $4.7 billion in annual American pork exports.

Several trade groups including the American Farm Bureau and the National Pork Producers Council have called for a "lifeline" from USDA. The NPPC suggested this week that USDA purchase $50 million dollars in pork products for food pantries and hunger relief donations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged to support pork producers around the country and in his native state of Iowa but exact details from USDA have yet to materialize.

Another group looking for federal assistance is a team of Iowa State University researchers developing new flu vaccines for swine.

Dr. Hank Harris, Iowa State University: "It really is unknown at this time whether existing commercial vaccines will prevent this virus infection in pigs."

Dr. Hank Harris, professor in animal science and production animal medicine, says his lab can create an effective H1N1 vaccine for swine in as little as two months time. According to Harris, ISU lab technicians do not need a sample of the live virus. Using electric current combined with a technique called RNA Backbone, a synthetic version of the original virus and a subsequent vaccine could be created.

Dr. Hank Harris, Iowa State University: "The sequence of this virus, isolated from humans in Mexico and then California, that sequence was known in about three or four days. And so, that's in the public domain and we simply take that sequence and generate a synthetic piece of the virus and that's why we can do it so quickly."

Despite technological breakthroughs, there are still financial hurdles for researchers. Harris and his colleagues need federal funds of nearly $200,000 to begin development of the H1N1 vaccine. Even if the vaccine is developed in two months time, a USDA approval process could stretch into 2011. But Harris emphasized an H1N1 outbreak in American swine is not a question of if or when but of severity.

Dr. Hank Harris, Iowa State University: "I feel confident that the virus will occur in pigs in the United States. Whether or not it causes serious problems in pigs is debatable. It could go unrecognized for a long time."


Tags: agriculture animals diseases H1N1 influenza Iowa news pigs vaccines