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Thermo Fisher Scientific - Dr. Paul Sundberg

Dr. Paul Sundberg

Senior vice president of science and technology at the NPB

In late 2014, the National Pork Board’s (NPB) board of directors announced the creation of the Swine Health Information Center, an autonomous entity intended to internationally monitor and prepare the U.S. swine industry for emerging disease threats. A $15 million investment by the Pork Checkoff was tagged to fund the center for five years, and a board consisting of representatives from the NPB, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) and at-large pork producers, will govern it.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a company with deep expertise in animal diagnostics, recently held a question-and-answer session with Dr. Paul Sundberg, senior vice president of science and technology at the NPB, to discuss the current status of the center as well as the important role diagnostics will play in the center’s international disease monitoring and management efforts.

What led to the creation of the Swine Health Information Center?

The realization that the industry needs to be prepared to respond very quickly to unexpected emerging disease outbreaks led to the creation of the center. A recent example is last year’s outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv), which taught us that the window for opportunity for pathogens to enter the U.S. is wide open. In fact, we still don’t know exactly how it got here, but this underscored how vitally important it is for the industry to be prepared and to prioritize diseases that can potentially enter the country. Further experience with PEDv also brought to light the need to help facilitate awareness of and have quicker access to the proper diagnostics to detect and monitor the diseases.

Can you elaborate on the diagnostic issue surrounding that PEDv outbreak?

At first, the samples sent to diagnostic labs from veterinarians were tested for transmissible gastro enteritis (TGE), because the symptoms of TGE are somewhat similar to PED. Diagnostic labs were receiving samples from swine farms wanting to confirm TGE, but the tests kept coming back negative. At that time, the diagnostic labs didn’t have the capability to test for PEDv when the TGE test was negative. Eventually, a graduate student at Iowa State University developed a pan-coronavirus PCR test that detected PEDv. Essentially, it took four months for us to identify the disease as PEDv and develop proper testing that could be used in diagnostic labs. This experience was one of the factors that solidified the need to develop the Swine Health Information Center so we have better diagnostics and the funding resources to deal quickly and efficiently with emerging diseases.

What are the center’s primary goals?

First, we want to actively monitor swine disease globally. We will work to form an international network of information. This will take the cooperation of USDA and many other entities across the globe. As an example, we need to work with the USDA Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health located in Fort Collins, Colorado. We also will be forging relationships with genetics and animal health companies that use their international intelligence to make vaccines or diagnostics to help predict diseases three years out.

We don’t have illusions that there’s going to be a commercial test developed for every potential disease. We want to work with USDA, academia and diagnostic companies to put in place the best diagnostic products available, even if it is putting reagents and protocol in place so we don’t have to start from scratch when a disease emerges. We have to prioritize the most likely viruses to enter our country and cause trouble.

Finally, we’d like to enable producers to communicate health information with one another about their farms to help them improve and protect the health of their herds.

Any final thoughts regarding the role of diagnostics in disease management?

Our land grant university system, started when Abraham Lincoln was president in 1862, is unique in the world. It has enabled us to build infrastructure to provide veterinary diagnostic services across the country to serve the most important animal protein producer in the world – the United States. Providing the diagnostic tools through our land grant university system is critical to enable the system to best serve our animal protein production industry.

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