Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) continues to be the largest threat to the deer farming industry every year. Farmers across North America systematically lose hundreds of their deer in every season which sees an abundance of the biting midge (culicoides sonorensis).
Over the years, there are have been many efforts to create a vaccine for EHD, however, none have delivered the peer-proven results that the industry sought and the farmers needed.
But science continues to advance, and a new vaccine currently being tested and sold by Medgene Labs of South Dakota has many in the industry excited by its results to date and its potential.
“I am excited that a company such as Medgene Labs has stepped up to produce a commercially available product that is backed with lab results and USDA/CVB oversight,” says Shawn Schafer, executive director of North American Deer Farmers Association (NADeFA).
“The Medgene vaccine goes above and beyond anything we have had before,” adds Schafer. “The science and technology behind it are so much more advanced than anything we’ve dealt with in the past.”
Schafer explains that previous efforts were mostly autogenous vaccines which are somewhat of a fast response approach, and they never produced reliable results for the long-term. One possible reason is simply the lack of financing that is required for such an undertaking.
“Producing these vaccines takes a lot of money and a lot of study,” he says. “It’s difficult to get large pharmaceutical companies to make such a large investment in what is really a small industry, when compared to cattle, poultry and other livestock.”
However, the vaccine created by Medgene Labs is different on a variety of levels. Not only is it being thoroughly tested, the vaccine and the research behind it has oversight by the USDA which is a first for an EHD vaccine, and it means there are checks and balances which protect deer farmers.
“Medgene is not selling anything until it has been tested and proven to their satisfaction, and USDA has analyzed the data and said ‘Yes, this works. It looks good’,” says Schafer.
Ashley Petersen, clinical R&D lead and senior scientist at Medgene Labs, says that Medgene Labs has been working on the EHD vaccine for about six years. The program initially started with a grant from Department of Homeland Security to figure out how to vaccinate wildlife. Research started with an oral vaccine, but Medgene also created an injectable vaccine. Further study found that the injectable vaccine vastly outperformed the oral version.
According to Petersen, the initial vaccination requires two doses, which should be given approximately three weeks apart or at least no sooner than two weeks. The doses can be given up to three months apart, and the vaccine can be given to fawns as well.
Following the initial two doses, an annual booster is required and Medgene recommends it be administered at least two weeks prior to EHD season. However, the booster might be given more frequently in areas with year-round disease pressure.
The vaccine has reportedly been used in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“We were working with NADeFA. The more we became involved in the deer industry, the more we saw the need for an EHD vaccine,” says Petersen.
She explains Medgene Labs vaccine is for use against EHDV2 and EHDV6. In the United States, there are three types of EHD. EHDV2 is the most prevalent and kills the most whitetail year every year. EHDV6 is the next most common and is also known to kill other species, such as cattle and bison. The other type is EHDV1, which is the least common.
Peterson notes that the vaccine can be used in a multitude of species, but is not currently licensed. The USDA is allowing Medgene to sell the vaccine directly to livestock owners as experimental, and then collect field data which will help to get the product licensed. Licensing a vaccine through the USDA requires many very specific studies that must be conducted.
“The vaccine is a preventative,” says Schafer. “Too often, our farmers wait until they have an outbreak. Once you have a disease, it’s almost too late. This vaccine is not a cure. It’s a preventative. That being said, if EHD is hitting your farm right now, I would still vaccinate my animals especially the ones that I know are not sick.”
“As farmers,” he adds, “we often get complacent and skip vaccinating until the next EHD outbreak occurs, but sadly starting a vaccination program at that time is like waiting for your house to catch fire before building a fire department.
“The best time to start is right now. Get the first shot in and then deliver your booster in two weeks. That way you’re protected, and ready to start a more timely annual vaccination program next spring.