Cattle Vaccine Could Reduce E. Coli Outbreaks

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"The food chain has to bear the responsibility, but nobody's really figured out how to do that yet," he said.

Pfizer will sell it for $2.35 per injection, and it could take two to four doses to inoculate each animal. A two-dose regimen is most likely.

Estimates put the cost to suppliers from about $5 to as much as $15, depending on the added logistical costs of administering the injections. While it may seem a trifle to outsiders, even the lower range of the estimate could be significant added expense. Steve Kay, publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly since 1986, said it doesn't take much to change the fortunes of those in the cattle industry.

"That's a tremendous cost that somebody would have to bear," he said. "Even if it was shared between the feeders and packers, that might be the difference between profit and loss for them."

Adding to the cost, Kay said, are the logistical concerns of keeping vaccinated cattle segregated from the non-vaccinated cattle. But the cost of another E. coli outbreak in the beef market could be greater. Using data collected from industry reports and academic researchers, Kay estimated that E. coli cost the industry $2.671 billion during a 10-year span beginning in 1993.

The vaccine admittedly does nothing for the cattle, which makes it a hard sell for ranchers. The sole function is to protect humans from a strain of E. coli that lives as a harmless hitchhiker in the intestines of infected livestock, deer and other wild animals.

"Spending the money before it's proved to be effective is not a brilliant move," said rancher Bill Rishel, 66, former president of the Nebraska Cattlemen's Association. "If it's proved to be effective, I think you can rest-assured this industry will absolutely adopt it."

Canadian Vaccine Also Shows Promise

The Epitopix vaccine is not alone in the fight against E. coli in cattle. The first commercially available E. coli vaccine was made by Bioniche, and is now available on the Canadian market. That vaccine, labeled Econiche, is currently pursuing approval from the USDA for use in the United States.

UNL researcher David Smith conducted in 2002 the first trials on the Bioniche vaccine. He said the two vaccines were similar in that they both provoke an immune response in the animal to fight the bacteria.

"Actually, I would have to admit that I was pretty surprised when we did get positive results, and that we continued to get positive results," he said.

Smith said the biggest distinction between the two vaccines is in how they work. The Epitopix vaccine blocks the bacteria's ability to absorb iron, essentially starving it. The Bioniche vaccine, however, blocks the bacteria's ability to stick to the intestinal wall, which is necessary for colonization. But more importantly both are effective, he said.

Bioniche CEO Graeme McRae expects to have USDA approval before the end of the year, and is building a $37 million manufacturing facility that can meet global-scale demand. He wasn't familiar with the Epitopix vaccine, but hopes claims of its effectiveness prove to be true with further testing.

"I hope it works, because there's room in this marketplace for several vaccines," he said. "And one vaccine that proves it doesn't work very well, that will affect the sale of everybody's vaccine."

No Silver Bullet

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