Among the profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanity has been the remarkable development of mRNA vaccines that saved numerous lives.

This momentous advancement in medicine addressed COVID-19 and has also shown a path to further game-changing opportunities for human health.

For a food-producing nation like Aotearoa, it is also showing potential for huge gains in the health, welfare and productivity of our tens of millions of farmed animals.

Certainly, just as in the field of human medicine, the journey towards this innovative frontier for livestock is far from straightforward.

There are always challenges in the research and development, and regulatory approvals are needed for any new therapeutics and vaccines; and there is also the growing issue of misinformation and peddling of conspiracy theories about this RNA technology to contend with.

Fortunately, the government has recognised the opportunities for New Zealand, with the creation of an RNA Development Platform to ensure that we have “well-connected and world-class research capability to strengthen the use and commercialisation of RNA technology”. This platform, after a plan is rolled out, will unlock funding of up to $69.5 million over seven years.

Its focus will be new vaccines, treatments and diagnostics that improve human health outcomes in areas such as cancer and autoimmune diseases, but the government has also recognised there are “potential applications in other areas, such as animal health and agriculture”.

Critics and conspiracy theorists have already spread misinformation and fear about mRNA vaccines for humans, and some are already doing the same for animals

AgResearch chief scientist Axel Heiser

New mRNA vaccines could address common diseases in livestock. They could be particularly effective against viral diseases, such as Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) and Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), but also against bacterial diseases such as mastitis and endometritis.

These diseases have a significant impact on animal health and welfare, and productivity of our agriculture sector. For BVD, for example, industry body DairyNZ states that “estimates put the annual losses for dairy farmers at around $127 million”.

So, what exactly is RNA, or mRNA?

RNA (Ribonucleic acid), often considered the lesser-known relative of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid), plays a vital role in the processes of cells in living things.

While DNA contains the complete genetic information necessary for building and maintaining an organism, RNA serves as a messenger and facilitator of genetic instructions (hence mRNA for `messenger RNA’).

RNA is responsible for transcribing genetic information from DNA and carrying it to the machinery in cells involved in the creation of proteins. It delivers instructions for constructing cells or responding to immune challenges.

mRNA vaccines work by preparing the body to defend itself against a specific disease. They do this by introducing pieces of mRNA that tell the cells in the body how to make part of a viral protein, which can be recognised by the immune system as foreign. The immune system then makes immune cells and antibodies which recognise the specific virus when it is contracted.

Critics and conspiracy theorists have already spread misinformation and fear about mRNA vaccines for humans, and some are already doing the same for animals. So, it is essential to separate fact from fiction when it comes to mRNA vaccines for animals.

AgResearch chief scientist Axel Heiser

There are several common myths surrounding RNA vaccines for livestock, such as the following:

Myth: RNA vaccines will genetically modify livestock.

Reality: The mRNA in RNA vaccines does not integrate into the animal's DNA and does not alter an animal's genetic makeup. The genetic instructions for an organism are in its DNA. RNA only serves as a messenger between DNA and the ribosomes that “translate” the RNA into proteins. Scientifically and legally, vaccinating with RNA it is not a genetic modification. Once the RNA vaccine has done its job of being translated into viral protein, which prompts the immune response, it is rapidly broken down and eliminated from the body.

Myth: RNA vaccines are untested.

Reality: As with any other new medicine, RNA vaccines go through rigorous testing before being authorised. Since the authorisation of RNA vaccines for humans, extensive real-world data has also been collected to monitor their safety and efficacy. Adverse events are closely monitored, and any potential safety concerns are investigated. RNA vaccines have also been extensively tested in animals, and they have been shown to be safe and effective. For example, an mRNA vaccine has already been developed to protect pigs from Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), which is a viral disease that causes significant economic losses for the pork industry.

Myth: RNA vaccines are dangerous.

Reality: Side effects of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are mostly mild to moderate. As with other types of vaccines, they can cause pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, and fever. These side effects usually resolve within a few days. Serious adverse effects are rare but have been reported. For example, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining around the heart) have been reported in some people who received mRNA vaccines, especially in younger males. However, these cases are rare. A study in the US followed 15,148,369 people aged 18–64 years who received one or more mRNA vaccines and observed 411 cases of myocarditis or pericarditis, or both – that is less than one in 36,000. The benefits of vaccination in preventing COVID-19 far outweigh the risks of these rare side effects.

Myth: RNA vaccines are new and unproven.

Reality: Development of experimental RNA vaccines against cancer and infectious diseases took off in the late 1990s. While mRNA vaccines are still a relatively new technology, they have already been used successfully in humans and animals. More than two billion people have received RNA Covid vaccines and they have been shown to be highly effective in preventing the most serious effects of COVID-19. Similarly, the PRRS vaccine for pigs mentioned earlier has already been proven to be safe and effective, and it is already being used in some countries including the United States, Canada, China, Mexico, South Korea, and in the European Union.

Myth: RNA vaccines will replace traditional vaccines.

Reality: RNA vaccines are a valuable addition to the range of vaccine types already available for animals. They can be used to target specific diseases, and for at least some diseases can be produced more quickly and efficiently than traditional vaccines. However, traditional vaccines will still have a role to play in protecting humans and animals against other diseases.

Myth: RNA vaccines will harm the environment.

Reality: The evidence shows that RNA vaccines are not harmful to the environment. In fact, they potentially have environmental benefits by reducing the need for antibiotics and other treatments. This could help to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance, which is a growing global health threat. By reducing the incidence of diseases in animals, farmers could also reduce their use of resources, such as water and energy, which could help to reduce their environmental impact.

While there will inevitably be criticism and fear surrounding this new technology, it is essential to separate fact from fiction and to focus on the potential benefits that mRNA technologies could bring. We all have a responsibility to counter the misinformation and promote the evidence when it comes to potential advances for our society.

For New Zealand, with its reliance on agriculture, the development of mRNA vaccines for livestock could be a significant advantage.

By reducing the incidence of diseases in animals, farmers could improve increase productivity and reduce cost while improving animal welfare; leading to economic benefits for both farmers and the wider New Zealand economy and to long-term sustainability of New Zealand's agricultural industries.

**The above piece by AgResearch chief scientist Axel Heiser was published in Stuff newspapers on 12 July 2023**

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