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Spreading Virus Kills Hundreds of Thousands of Pigs

Frank Morris

A virus new to the United States is spreading through farms hundreds of thousands of baby pigs.  

Like most hog farmers, Brent Sandidge in Missouri, has been losing money lately.

"We’ve had a drought, and record high feed prices, so that’d be the last thing you’d need is another hit," says Sandidge.

But that hit came this spring for some with the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus. Bob Morrison, at the University of Minnesota says the excrement of infected pigs is loaded with the bug.

"So you’ve got a fire hose of virus coming out, and the U.S. industry has no immunity to this virus," says Morrison.

If one pig on a farm gets it, they all do. The youngest die. And for now, there is no cure.

Lisa Becton at National Pork Board says that even before PEVD, farmers were on high alert to keep pathogens from other pig farms, out of their own.

"You know washing trailers between uses. Having shower in and wear farm clothing, and not wear their own clothing to a farm. Also cleaning supplies, making sure when you bring in supplies, they’re clean, they’re not dirty, you know, having a secure source of feed," says Becton. "So, right now we’re focusing on the prevention side."

That hasn’t quite been doing the trick. The virus has spread to 15 states, though to only about 300 farms as of early July, infecting a small percentage of U.S. pigs.   

No people have caught the disease. Humans can’t get it.  

Meanwhile, scientists like Hank Harris, at Iowa State University, are on the offensive.

"We’re in the process of developing a vaccine for the PED virus," says Harris.

Harris was familiar with this type virus… a similar bug, TGE, which to be called Baby Pig Disease, has plagued U.S. farms for decades. Harris was also familiar with PEDV, which has killed millions of pigs in Asia.

"One of my former students is from Thailand, and so we’ve been communicating about making a vaccine for use in Asia, but we hadn’t started it," says Harris. "But, as soon as this occurred in the United States, we were able to get the correct sequence of the virus, actually off the internet."

Using some new and advanced methods Harris and his team have been able to assemble important parts of the virus. Testing began in early July, and Harris hopes to have a working vaccine for the PED virus ready to go on the market by fall.