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Winning Big with Brucellosis

The Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines (GALVmed) and AgResults caught the attention of the global animal health world when they challenged researchers to find a new, safe vaccine for Brucellosis – a disease that causes abortions, infertility and decreased milk production among cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo – with a $30 million competition.

Peter Jeffries, chief executive of GALVmed, told us why this unusual approach to developing a new vaccine is working and what others can learn from the Brucellosis Challenge model.

What is GALVmed’s mission when it comes to animal health innovation?

We work to improve the supply of quality animal health products to smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia, ensuring reliability of supply and that they are marketed at a fair price.

We create new products with our many partners, using their support and encouraging them to enter the smallholder space. This might include a pack size variant of an existing product, it may be a new combination that does not currently exist, or it may be a completely new vaccine – this is the most single important function we have.

These products have a significant impact on livestock in these underserved areas. It’s not about a marginal productivity improvement that we might see in Europe or the U.S. What we’re talking about is ‘is the animal going to live or is it going to die?’, making it easy to demonstrate the return on investment. The challenge we face today is that this isn’t how many small farmers think just yet.

What is the practical impact when a smallholder farmer invests in vaccination and puts that money towards animal health? What are they seeing as the return?

I think we can say quite categorically that there are significant changes associated with the control of disease, which can be converted to economic benefit. It’s not going to make the headlines but it is making a huge difference to small-holder farmers in Africa.

Most of our efforts have been on Newcastle disease, which is recognised as a single, most important disease among chickens. But we don’t want to ignore what I think is the next most important disease to be considered – Fowl Pox and after that Gumboro disease, which is also known as Infectious Bursal Disease. We are looking at those diseases and whether we can tackle them through a combination vaccine so that one intervention can have a bigger impact.

Why is the Brucellosis Challenge different from other projects that GALVmed has worked on?

The Brucellosis Challenge is essentially a competition with up to $25 million as the final prize, with two prior levels of prize money – $100,000 for 10 winners and a $1m for four winners.

What we’re trying to deliver is a significantly improved Brucellosis vaccine that can be used safely in the field and can benefit anyone who needs to use a vaccine, which makes it more interesting to commercial producers but could be of particular value to smallholder farmers.

Reproductive loss is a major cause of financial loss for smallholder farmers, in Africa particularly. It’s often not clear in the diagnosis what the cause of that reproductive loss is, which makes it more challenging to provide an adequate solution. Alongside these production losses is the human health risks associated with the people drinking milk from infected animals and handling aborted foetuses.

In Europe and North America, Brucellosis has been almost wiped out, and so some people may ask, why can’t we use those existing vaccines in Africa and Asia? The answer is, they’re not considered particularly safe or effective there, so an improved vaccine is being sought to meet the challenge.

From the competition, we’re looking for an applicant with a completely new approach and new technology which can be tested and, most importantly be functional within Brucellosis cases. So far, we’ve had applicants from North and South America, Europe and China. These applicants are coming from all over the world, which has been very encouraging.

Is this a model you think is viable in order to find vaccines for other diseases?

The launch of this prize has generated significant interest in the private sector, which has been a tremendously positive surprise to me. We’ve had 39 applicants to date and twenty of those were considered suitable for consideration for a prize. 10 of them have since been awarded the first level prize – that’s far more applicants than any of us expected.

That to me demonstrates that this prize model is one that adds value. It’s innovative, it’s new. By the time the second level prize of $1m is awarded there will have to be a commercial partnership in place to demonstrate how this technology can be brought to market.

There haven’t been many advancements with Brucellosis for the last 50 years, but this competition has completely changed the dynamic. There is a lot of enthusiasm around Brucellosis, which could be replicated for another disease.

If the Brucellosis Challenge is a success and a vaccine is brought to market, what will this mean for smallholder farmers? What impact will this have on them?

The moment you have a case of Brucellosis it’s very costly, causing abortion and a recurrent fever and is regularly misdiagnosed. It can also be difficult to clear from the system. Infections are transmitted to humans when they drink raw milk, so it is a major human and animal health concern. It is responsible for an estimated 500,000 new human cases each year.

A safe vaccine needs to be in place in order to control infectious diseases. By and large the economic impact of the disease is significantly linked to vaccination. If there is a safe vaccination, it will transform the lives of many farmers, providing them with healthier livestock, healthier communities and therefore a better income.

What new projects are on the horizon for GALVmed?

We’ve just been awarded our next round of funding by the Gates Foundation – $40 million – and we are expecting more funding in April from other partners so that we can look at five or six new disease control areas involving combination vaccines.

Combination vaccines are a big focus for us. The reason for this is because when you’re dealing with smallholder farmers, your access to the animal is limited and diagnosis tends to be non-specific. So, you know when animals are aborted, or if an animal has respiratory disease, for example. However, you don’t often know what the actual cause of that abortion is, so you have non-specific diagnoses. If we can get in there with a three or four-way combination vaccine, against three or four important diseases then that’s a better a use of the intervention than just giving a vaccine for a specific disease

Peter trained as a veterinarian. He spent 10 years of his early career in Africa working for Merial before moving into other roles in France and the US. Peter joined Zoetis in 2008, with responsibility for Business Development and Global Alliances for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has been working at GALVmed as chief executive since 2013.