Paltry research funding

Paltry research funding

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

Most viruses, including the covid-19 coronavirus sweeping the globe, emanate in animals and leap to humans. The easiest transmission route is from hogs, followed by poultry. Still, the pork industry is not certain how to contain African swine flu other than biosecurity (keeping visitors out), and after five years we still don’t know how or why 50 million birds died from avian flu in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota (including 5 million chickens at Rembrandt).

That’s because we spend a pittance on animal viral research.

We devote $63 million per year through the US Department of Agriculture to poultry research, and just $25 million per year on swine research. The stock market loses that much value in nanoseconds under a coronavirus crash. We’ve been complaining about it since the budget was frozen (sequestration, they called it) during the Obama administration. Since then, poultry research has increased about 2.6% per year. Swine research has been stuck at $25 million during that entire period — meaning that we are losing pace to inflation and to the viruses as they mutate and jump.

Much has been made, appropriately, about how the Trump Administration gutted the Centers for Disease Control, and how the jettisoned former federal employees can be summoned back to the mission at a moment’s notice (not that easy). Barely a twitter has been given to the freeze in swine research funding when most of the global flu pandemics arise from swine. African swine flu has cut the Chinese hog herd in half. God forbid that it should reach Iowa, but our main defense right now is prayer. And, Lord help us when that African bug morphs into a human variant. If we knew better how viruses fester in swine, we would have a better understanding how to prevent or moderate human pandemics. Tax cuts took priority.

Several studies now are underway asking basic questions about the avian pandemic. Why were wild birds not infected like confined hens or turkeys? How did the virus make it from Asia through Canada and down into Iowa on the wings of, presumably, wild birds and how did they infect chicken houses with rigorous biosecurity protocols? We still don’t know the answers to those questions. We are not sure why swine viruses move to humans more easily than avian flus do, and have only a dim understanding how viruses navigate between fur and fowl. We should know answers to many of these basic questions by 2022, according to the research updates we could find. If there were more money, we would know by now.

At the same time, the federal government is cutting back its food safety, economic research and plant pathogen research budgets. And the CDC.

The federal government should be the first line of defense for the public safety. Its research activity put a man on the moon, and gave us the Internet and cellphone. We didn’t quite need a space force or new missile systems for Saudi Arabia, but we do need basic research into highly infectious influenza in birds. We need strong food safety standards in an era of salmonella scares. We need to know a lot more about how confined livestock may pose health threats to humans, and how vaccine regimens can manage outbreaks. USDA does not allow general vaccination of laying hens, for example, because of trade concerns — when the vaccines are proven to protect human health.

We spent $30 billion in two years on bailouts, in part for the pork industry, caused by trade dislocations wrought by Trump. We don’t spend that much on basic swine research in any given year. Three thousand meat processing jobs in Storm Lake depend on it, along with thousands more on-farm workers spread throughout a three-state area. The Trump Administration has not made it a priority at all. Last year, it asked to cut in half the poultry research budget — but Congress had better sense and increased it. The scientists in Ames at the university and national USDA labs will find the answers if we give them sufficient resources. We’re not. As a result, we have little control over how pandemics spread. That tax cut will be spent on the deductible you pay for the doctor visit on the flu that was generated by a hog.

Articles Section: