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Producers of a vaccine developed to help thwart a fast-spreading swine virus that recently surfaced in Canada says the new drug is showing promise, reducing hog deaths in several American states.MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

Producers of a vaccine developed to help thwart a fast-spreading swine virus that recently surfaced in Canada says the new drug is showing promise, reducing hog deaths in several American states.

The drug, developed last year by Iowa-based Harris Vaccines, has just been retooled to improve its effectiveness against porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has killed more than one million young pigs in the United States and driven up pork prices since its detection there in April.

Twenty-three states are now grappling with the disease. Canada recorded its first case on a Southern Ontario farm less than two weeks ago. Since then, the virus has been confirmed in four other Ontario locations and in a slaughterhouse in Quebec.

Canadian pork producers and governments are bracing for more. If the highly contagious virus continues to spread, the economic ramifications for hog farms could be significant, potentially costing the industry $45-million in the first year.

Hank Harris, president and CEO of Harris Vaccines, said Canada will have access to the company's second-generation vaccine called iPED+, which the Canadian Food Inspection Agency granted approval for last week. Veterinarians will be allowed to import the vaccine with an emergency permit.

Nearly one-million doses of the original vaccine have been meted out in the U.S., Dr. Harris said. The vaccine is primarily designed to build antibodies against PED in sows, increasing the level of immunity transferred to piglets.

"We've had a lot of positive feedback," said Dr. Harris, professor emeritus in Iowa State University's department of animal science. The vaccine, which is awaiting licensing approval from the United States Department of Agriculture, has so far mostly been used in herds affected by the virus.

Hog deaths and the severity of the disease has dropped on farms that have used the vaccine, although exact numbers are not yet know, said Joel Harris, the company's head of sales and marketing.

The swine virus, present in parts of Europe and Asia for some time, causes severe diarrhea and death in suckling pigs and milder diarrhea in older swine. The disease does not pose a risk to people or food safety, but is predicted to reduce the U.S. hog herd by as much as 3 per cent this year.

CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle said the agency has received multiple inquires about the vaccine from veterinarians in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. The three provinces are the largest pig producers in Canada.

Although the vaccine is its infancy and undergoing further field testing, the CFIA decided to issue emergency permits based on the manufacturer's preliminary findings and because the virus emerging presence in Canada.

"The vaccine will only be allowed to be used under close veterinarian supervision," Mr. Gravelle noted. "The vaccine would be administered to pigs in sow barns, as a precautionary measure, to build resistance, in case the sites become exposed to PED virus in the future."

The World Organisation for Animal Health does not list PED as a reportable disease, and neither Canadian nor American governments require hog producers to document the virus.

One province, however, has made the virus reportable because of the economic harm it could cause. Since Jan. 20, known and suspected cases of PED in Alberta must be relayed within 24 hours to chief provincial veterinarian Gerald Hauer. Other provinces have asked about Alberta's move, Dr. Hauer said.

The declaration helps communicate the seriousness of the disease and allows the Alberta government to provide testing in its labs and co-ordinate a response to minimize the risk of the disease, if it turns up in the province. Farm quarantines are not being contemplated.

PED is spread through manure-to-mouth contact. The hog industry and governments are trying to contain the virus by urging producers and truckers to wash and dry transport trucks. Showering after entering hog barns is also advised.

Canada exports about half of the $3-billion worth of hogs and pork it produces annually, mostly to the United States. Dr. Hauer said PED in the U.S. poses a bigger threat to Alberta than Ontario's cases because movement of hogs between the two provinces is limited.