University-made turkey vaccine could save millions

Branden Peterson

A University professor has helped stop the spread of a virus that cost Minnesota turkey producers $90 million in losses during the past six years.

The Department of Agriculture recently approved a vaccine developed by College of Veterinary Medicine professor Sagar Goyal to prevent avian pneumovirus, a severe respiratory disease found in turkeys.

The approval will allow the production and sale of the vaccine to Midwest turkey growers.

“I am gratified by the fact that our hypothesis of 1997 has finally been proven and that we are now able to help the turkey growers of Minnesota in fighting this malady,” said Goyal, a virology professor.

The virus first hit the United States in Colorado in 1996. Immediately after officials discovered it, infected flocks were terminated, and scientists hoped the disease had been stopped. Less than a year later and for an unknown reason, the virus found a way onto Minnesota turkey farms.

The virus was first diagnosed in South Africa in 1978 before spreading through Europe in the mid-1980s. The disease does not affect humans.

Birds infected with avian pneumovirus experience nasal discharge, coughing, tracheal rales, conjunctitivits and sinusitis.

When the virus is a turkey’s lone infection, a mortality rate of 2 percent to 5 percent exists. But if an additional infection is present in a bird, the mortality rate rises to 25 percent.

Researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine determined the U.S. virus is different than European versions.

Goyal and his students worked to weaken the virus, hoping to later make a live vaccine. Experiments with dozens of turkeys were needed to properly test the vaccine.

The vaccine can be administered nasally, in drinking water, by eye drops or through an aerosol spray.

Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said even though avian pneumovirus has been limited to concentrated areas in Minnesota, hope for a vaccine has been long-awaited.

“We’ve been dealing with this for five years,” he said. “We hope it has a tremendous impact.”

According to the USDA, Minnesota became the leading turkey growing state in 2001, with more than 600 turkey farms and approximately 43.5 million turkeys. The industry directly employs approximately 6,900 people in the state.