UTEP Receives Major Biomedical Research Project Award to Improve the Food Supply in Africa by Preventing Rift Valley Fever Disease in Sheep and Cattle

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) today announced that it has received a major contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop an animal vaccine against Rift Valley Fever (RVF) through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Rift Valley Fever Control in Agriculture. The Innovation Lab’s ultimate aim is to protect livestock to help increase global food security, which is a priority of USAID under Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

RVF is a mosquito-borne disease with sporadic and unpredictable outbreaks that can have a devastating impact on human and animal health in Africa, with heavy economic loss due to the banning of livestock export and the loss of meat as an important source of food, coupled with human infection and disease, including blindness. While primarily found in Africa, outbreaks of the disease have occurred in the Sinai Peninsula,and there is concern about the potential introduction of RVF virus into the United States. The goal of the Innovation Lab is to develop and evaluate a vaccine for the protection of livestock (sheep, goats and cattle) from RVF disease that will reduce the outbreaks and help to lower human cases of the disease.

As the lead institution, UTEP will collaborate with The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, and the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in Morogoro, Tanzania together with two commercial entities: Sigma-Aldrich Corporation’s custom manufacturing services business unit, SAFC Commerical,  in Carlsbad, California and Bioject Inc., Tigard, Oregon. UTEP will employ existing state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and cutting-edge technology, including its recently constructed Biosafety Level 3 laboratory, all made available by the Department of Biological Sciences’ Border Biomedical Research Center to develop the attenuated virus required to make the vaccine and for developing diagnostic tests needed to evaluate the efficacy of the vaccine. 

SUA will play a significant role in field testing the vaccine in livestock in Tanzania as well as developing molecular virology capability to develop new testing capability for diagnosing RVF disease. They will collaborate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research Division in Manhattan, Kansas to configure the test into a simple field-usable assay that is accurate and easy for use by public health and agriculture workers. UTMB will study the molecular virology of the vaccine to show that it is safe to use in nature. 

Finally, SAFC will adapt an existing process for making the new vaccine based on work previously supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at UTMB for making another vaccine, RVF MP-12. The latter vaccine was originally developed by Dr. C.J. Peters and colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. The vaccine that will be used in this project will be an attenuated vaccine derived from the RVF MP-12 vaccine and constructed to distinguish vaccinated from naturally infected animals. Finally, Bioject Inc. will provide a needle-free vaccine delivery system to simplify the vaccination process, allowing for wider use of the vaccine in Africa. 

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Rift Valley Fever Control in Agriculture builds upon previous federally funded research directly applicable to both the animal and human form of RVF disease, and reflects the growing recognition of UTEP’s and collaborating institutions’ capabilities and interest in contributing to the improvement of both food security and global health. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) (www.usaid.gov) is an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States. As stated in the President’s National Security Strategy, USAID’s work in development joins diplomacy and defense as one of three key pieces of the nation’s foreign policy apparatus. USAID promotes peace and stability by fostering economic growth, protecting human health, providing emergency humanitarian assistance, and enhancing democracy in developing countries. These efforts to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide represent U.S. values and advance U.S. interests for peace and prosperity.

Feed the Future (www.feedthefuture.gov) is the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increase incomes and reduce hunger, poverty and under nutrition.