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Grant Supports NC State Livestock Infectious Disease Research

Tracking the trade of pigs using mathematical models is key to understanding how swine viruses can spread to different farms.

A research project led by the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine to halt the spread of infectious disease among livestock in Brazil may help protect North Carolina’s vital swine industry. 

The project, headed by Gustavo Machado, an assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, is a collaboration between academia, government and industry to build a sustainable and effective defense against diseases such as African swine fever that can have catastrophic impacts on livestock farmers and food animal industries around the world. 

With the new two-year funding, Machado and his research team aim to automate contact tracing for livestock to further accelerate outbreak responses and make it easier to the system without specialist training. 

Funding is the research is FUNDESA, an initiative between private industry and government supporting animal health defense in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.

For the project, now in its third phase, Machado and his team are working with government officials in Rio Grande do Sul’s State Department of Agricultural Defense, as well as state veterinarians, swine producers and researchers from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. 

“The work we are doing in Rio Grande do Sul is directly connected to our work in North Carolina because both states are big pig producers, so they are vulnerable to the introduction and re-introduction of foreign animal diseases,” says Machado.

Livestock defense is crucial for countries with large and growing agricultural industries. In Brazil and the United States — both among the largest pork producers worldwide — livestock production plays a major role in economic growth and food security.

Though not a threat to human health, African swine fever can devastate livestock because no commercial vaccine or cure exists. Preparing for and preventing outbreaks are the only options for swine farmers.  

Gustavo Machado, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health and Pathobiology.

“Our end goal is to help the veterinary services become fully independent so they can adapt to changes within their agricultural systems and build their own long-term protection against infectious disease,” says Machado. 

Since the time he worked on his Ph.D. at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Machado has found ways to combine research with training on combating livestock infectious diseases. He has forged strong relationships with livestock industries across Brazil and North Carolina.  

Alongside his Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, which explored how animal transportation spreads infectious diseases between farms, Machado has trained government officials to create maps of transportation routes and farm networks so they could track of animals.

In 2019, shortly after joining the CVM’s Department of Population Health and Pathobiology, the college’s global health program helped him expand this work by supporting his research into methods of contact tracing for livestock and funding a training program to teach state veterinarians in Rio Grande do Sul how to use these techniques.

In 2019, FUNDESA funded a second phase of the project that allowed Machado, his team and collaborators to use their knowledge of farm and transportation networks in Rio Grande do Sul to identify farms facing the greatest risk of disease outbreaks. The team taught state veterinarians how to target farms for disease surveillance. 

“Disease surveillance is expensive and time consuming, so if states can locate high risk farms, they can prioritize surveillance in these locations to detect and stop outbreaks more rapidly,” says Machado. “This is especially important for areas with limited resources.”

Machado and his team will advance their state veterinary training to the next level, teaching how to use complex computational tools to predict future outbreaks. These predictions will help states test different defense strategies so they are prepared to respond if an outbreak occurs.  

“Diseases like African swine fever have spread around the world, but they have not arrived in Brazil or the United States yet,” says Machado. “If states like Rio Grande do Sul and North Carolina can prepare for such emergency events, they can minimize damage to their livestock industries and protect economic security.” 

~Greer Arthur/NC State Veterinary Medicine Global Health