U of S lab hopes to begin field testing a bovine TB prototype vaccine in 2 years

A research lab at the University of Saskatchewan says it hopes to begin field testing a prototype vaccine for bovine tuberculosis in the next two years.

Andrew Potter, CEO of the university's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization — International Vaccine Centre, told CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition that early lab testing of a prototype has just begun on the first of a planned 250 animals.

"Of course there's no way to predict," Potter said of the chances for success. "We could get lucky and have something within a six-month period but it could take two years."

Still, he said they're hopeful they could be in the field with a prototype vaccine within a two-year window.

The work comes as farmers in Saskatchewan still grapple with the effects of a bovine TB outbreak that originated in Alberta but spread to some Saskatchewan farms last fall.

Forty-four ranches remained in quarantine in both provinces as of last week, and 10,500 cattle had been destroyed as part of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's investigation into the outbreak.

Potter says a vaccine would empower farmers to make decisions about their livestock instead of feeling helpless during outbreaks.

"Whether or not the producers want to use it, that's their decision," said Potter. "But at least they have a choice to make, as opposed to the way it is today."

Potter said the outbreak last fall was problematic because there was nothing producers could do throughout the process.

"So we're developing tools that hopefully they can use," he said. 

The slow emergence of TB symptoms partly accounts for the elusiveness of a cure, Potter said.

"Just like human TB, an animal can be infected yet not show any clinical signs for many, many years. In humans, it can take decades. But in an animal, certainly five to 10 years is not uncommon."

Diagnostic test also in the works 

The vaccine centre is also at work on a diagnostic tool that will help ranchers differentiate between a cow infected with TB and one merely injected with the vaccine.

Potter said discerning between the two is key when it comes to international trade and moving animals across borders.

He added he's encouraged by parallel work underway in the United States to develop a blood test for TB that can be carried out on farms.

It would "essentially be a cow-side test, which we don't have now," said Potter. "It looks very promising but there's still a ways to go with it."