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The vaccine supply is more fragile than you might think

Beef 911: Supplies can run short for many reasons, so you need to be prepared for that possibility

At times beef vaccines have come perilously close to being in critically short supply.

A lot of disease prevention and maintaining productivity relies on vaccination, and we often don’t realize how much we rely on these vaccines until there is a shortage.

With there only being a few large pharmaceutical companies, there may be few alternatives to turn to.

With regulatory control being very strict and changes slow to implement, there have been many times where tight supplies have occurred. Over the last number of years this has been even more prevalent in the swine industry. With its production cycle being shorter and with massive farrow-to-finish operations, critical vaccine supplies have forced changes to protocols. One vaccine was, for a time, only available for half the pigs so swine veterinarians, in some cases, went at half the dose to double the number of pigs vaccinated and got away with half-decent efficacy.

This has not happened in the cattle industry to my knowledge, but it can come precariously close.

As vaccines are manufactured they are checked for efficacy to determine if the manufacturing process has been successful. Modified vaccines are a living biological entity, so variance is inevitable. If one or more of the components in a multivalent vaccine do not meet specs this is known as a batch failure. Then depending on how big the batch failure, how big the demand is (season of year), and how either unique the vaccine is or how big the market share is for that particular company, a backlog shortage can cause a domino effect.

It is difficult to produce an excess of vaccine because of the shorter expiry dates. (Most vaccines have expiry dates of between one and two years.)

As well, there is not an even year-round demand for vaccines. As we all know in the cattle industry, demand is huge in the fall around weaning time and entry into the feedlot, as well as during spring turnout. Companies are trying to project demand and supply an ever-changing market and at the same time trying to grow their market share. But they can never exactly know what the cattle inventory is and what percentage of people will use the vaccines. Add to this, that because of competition, pharma companies don’t really want to divulge information such as batch failures, losses because of refrigeration in shipping, plant disruptions, or a myriad of other issues.

There have been shortages of vaccines, implants and even penicillin in recent years.

So what can you as a producer do to guard against this?

First off get your inventory of vaccines, antimicrobials as far ahead of time as you can. Make sure your fridge is working properly, accurate and, if possible, alarmed against temperature fluctuations. You don’t want to be the one who has a vaccine overheat and be destroyed. What’s even worse is if you didn’t realize it and vaccinate your cattle with an ineffective vaccine that overheated or froze in a farm fridge. This happens and can be devastating to the individual producer.

What happens if one big manufacturer goes down in vaccine production? They rightfully tell their customers, who then go and, for example, essentially cannibalize the markets of the other pharma companies for similar vaccines. In addition to having your own inventory, have a veterinarian clinic that keeps a decent amount of inventory and has yourself as one of its key customers.

It is too bad that when shortages occur or there’s a huge demand spike, that some of the regulatory issues can’t be relaxed — such as making it easier to bring in U.S. licensed vaccine. (Often it’s the same product as in Canada but doesn’t have bilingual labelling.)

If there is a vaccine failure it may be just one component has failed but the other components were fine. For example, some vaccine companies have had their 5-Way viral vaccine fail because of the BRSV (bovine respiratory syncytial virus) component in it. I would argue that it is maybe the least important component as the IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis) and BVD (bovine virus diarrhea) protection are the most critical. In times of a huge shortage I wish companies could still market the vaccine with the relabelled caveat that the BRSV component is ineffective. Far better to have IBR and BVD protection than nothing if the vaccine is pulled.

I realize it is a competitive world out there but some companies could ramp up production if they knew there was an imminent shortage in the marketplace. I am hoping that if a very effective COVID-19 vaccine is developed that all human pharma companies will work together on manufacturing.

That same model could then be used if a similar need was determined for production animal vaccines on a worldwide scale. There are, for example, different foot-and-mouth vaccines holed away in different locations around the world in the event of an outbreak. You don’t need this vaccine until there is an outbreak — and then you may need millions of doses.

This is the complicated world we live in, but if there are vaccines or pharmaceuticals your herd cannot do without, make sure you have access to that inventory. Your herd’s health may depend on it. If supplies are short, rely on your veterinarian to see what alternative approaches you may have.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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