As misinformation regarding the use of mRNA vaccines in livestock filter through social media, there are facts begging to be set straight. Recently, a claim was made saying producers are required to inject livestock with mRNA vaccines.
According to USDA spokesperson, Marissa Perry says, “There is no requirement or mandate that producers vaccinate their livestock for any disease. It is a personal and business decision left up to the producer and will remain that way,” in response to the claim, Associated Press shared in an article.
National Pork Board's Director of Consumer Public Relations, Jason Menke echoed the statement to AP, noting that the decision to use vaccines and other medical treatments to protect animal health and well-being are made by the farmer under the direction of the herd veterinarian. To further explain mRNA vaccines and shed light on controversies, Dr. Kevin Folta, a molecular biologist and professor at the University of Florida, shares his viewpoint and experience with the technology.
What are mRNA Vaccines?
First introduced to the population through the COVID-19 vaccines, mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines have been in development for decades, says Folta in a recent AgriTalk segment. He adds that the technology’s potential in human health makes it a likely candidate to have a place in animal health as well. However, “the technology is being maligned in social media, and is now shaping decisions at the level of state legislature,” Folta says. This leads to the growing importance that producers and consumers become more educated on the topic. What Folta believes began in January of this year, based on claims with very little data, certain advocates against mRNA vaccines are concerned that mRNA vaccines are in use and development in livestock. Additionally, these vaccines may then be present in the food these animals provide.
Why mRNA Vaccines Are Not Present in Food
“It's not in your food. It's a vaccine for the animal that, just like any vaccine, protects the animal from disease,” Folta says. Current mRNA vaccines being used in swine are injected into the muscle, Folta explains, which causes the development of the immune response protein to then stimulate the body to work against the virus. “In the absence of the virus, it's kind of like giving the virus or giving the body a ‘wanted’ poster that says, ‘when this individual comes along, and this virus comes along, work against it,’ and it's all gone within hours,” he adds. The mRNA never leaves the cells from where it was injected. RNA is a very unstable molecule that must be kept cold, buffered and in solvent, to remain viable, Folta explains.
Additionally, any licensed vaccine comes with a minimum time before that animal can enter the food chain, also known as the “withdrawal time,” says Alan Young, professor in the Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences at South Dakota State University and founder of protein platform (non-mRNA) vaccine company Medgene.
The Animal’s Genes Are Not Altered
While mRNA vaccines include genetic code, Folta says the use of a mRNA vaccines does not alter the animal’s genes in any way. “This [mRNA] is an intermediate between the gene itself and the products that the gene encodes. So, it's like having a blueprint and a house. The mRNA is like the construction worker. It takes the blueprint and manufactures the house. In the case of the cell, it takes the DNA blueprint and then takes a little bit of that information to build part of the final structure. The mRNA is just that intermediate, it does not change the genes. It doesn't change the DNA itself,” he explains.
What are the Benefits of mRNA Vaccines?
More flexibility and faster response to new disease, Folta describes as reasons why mRNA vaccines are becoming more popular. Traditional vaccines require large amounts of a virus to be raised and purified before being injected to elicit an immune response, he adds. Meanwhile, mRNA encourages the body to make a little piece of protein to elicit the desired immune response. “It's much cleaner, much easier. If you're moving parts in this machine, to make this product that induces an immune response, it’s so good in so many ways,” Folta says. In pork production specifically, researchers are working with mRNA vaccines that will work this way against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), which is a viral disease that causes economic loss totals around $664 million per year in the U.S. (Holtkamp et al., 2013). Additionally, the use of mRNA technology adds another tool to the toolbox, which may be helpful in combating diseases, such as African swine fever (ASF), avian influenza and other food-animal diseases. “This stands to be a revolutionary technology if we don't get in the way,” Folta adds.
Are There Risks to mRNA Vaccines?
Folta says everything has some sort of risk, but it’s important to weigh the benefits against the risk. As seen with the COVID-19 vaccines, in rare cases, people experienced side effects from the vaccine. However, Folta is encouraged by the initial results in livestock. “If you look in animals where these [vaccines] have been used, there have been no unusual effects noted. Everything potentially has risk, but it’s monitored, and especially in large animal populations, we can look very carefully at that for surveillance,” he explains.
mRNA Enters State Legislation
While some consumers spread misinformation about the use of mRNA vaccines, the ideas have also crept into state legislation. The Missouri House Bill 1169, with a special hearing set for Apr. 19 on the matter, aims to require a label be used on meat from animals treated with an mRNA vaccine, identifying the “potential gene therapy product.” This bill falsely claims that mRNA vaccines would modify the genes of the organism, Folta explains. mRNA vaccines are simply another modality that can protect animal health, which results in healthy animals producing the best and safest food products, Folta says, and provides producers with more options to help combat disease. “To have affordable food, we need to have continual innovation in the animal, medical, veterinary space and mRNA vaccines are safe and an effective way to treat the animal that does not change the final product,” he adds. The COVID-19 pandemic simply “broke the seal” to the development of these new modalities that will change the way human and animal diseases will be treated in the years to come.
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