AFRICAN Swine Fever. Avian Flu.

These two diseases threaten our food security considering that pork, poultry, and their by-products are widely consumed in the Philippines

In July 2019, the Department of Agriculture (DA) confirmed the Philippines' first African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ASF "is a viral disease affecting pigs and wild boar with up to 100 percent case fatality rate." At present, there are no vaccines or cures for the disease though there are studies and research being conducted on it already.

FAO further reports that as of July 2022, 53 provinces, 704 cities or municipalities, and 3,832 barangays have experienced ASF outbreaks.

In DA's 2021 Annual Report, a total of 499,389 hogs were culled by the end of 2021. Culling hogs in ASF-infected areas is a preventive measure by the agency to mitigate the spread of the disease. The agency reported that data from the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) shows that these operations contained ASF in 43 barangays in 16 municipalities, eight provinces, and four regions by the end of 2021.

The DA, local government units, and hog raisers have put in place several measures to contain the spread of the disease and repopulate the hog industry in the country. These included border control measures, biosecurity measures, a re-population program, and an indemnification program.

Another strategy to prevent the spread of ASF or its emerging again is through surveillance, which DA does under its

Bantay ASF sa Barangay (BABay ASF) program. The program "seeks to create an effective ASF monitoring, surveillance, and reporting system; and intensify the practice of biosecurity measures in all hog farms."

Avian Flu

In August 2022, BAI confirmed the presence of the Asian Avian Influenza H5N1 in 17 provinces in the Philippines. The disease entered the country in January 2022.

"Since then, a total of 198 cases were recorded nationwide, resulting in the mortality of 182,968 heads and the culling of 1,267,055 poultries. More than P122 million were distributed as indemnification by the DA-BAI as of July 29," DA said in a statement.

Similarly, DA has also implemented several biosecurity measures to mitigate the spread of the disease. These included "immediate information dissemination, thorough disease investigation, immediate culling and proper disposal of all remaining birds in affected farms, intensive surveillance in the one-kilometer quarantine zone around the infected farms and heightened transport requirements for poultry commodities, requiring negative AI tests and other documents."

A need to detect early

DOST Balik Scientist and inventor Dr. Homer Pantua said the Philippines has a problem when it comes to "diagnostics at the point of need."

"Why is that important? It is important because if we can do diagnostics at the point of need, we’ll be able to rapidly respond to outbreaks, we can do sound decision making and empower our veterinarians and farmers to craft mitigation strategies at the point or onsite," Pantua, who is also the president of BioAssets Corporation, said in an interview with SunStar Davao.

However, the country doesn't have the capability to provide "diagnostics at the point of need."

"And ang mahirap naman (The challenge is) is we don’t have [it], the laboratories [are] always big and it is very expensive to establish a laboratory," he said.

In a bid to address this gap and boost the surveillance against the diseases, BioAssets Corporation was able to develop a mobile biocontainment laboratory (MBL) that was funded through the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Science for Change (S4C) – Business Innovation through S&T (BIST) Program. The company received a total funding of around P15.95 million for the whole MBL program.

"If we bring the lab in a compact form, wherein we can do molecular and serological diagnostics, we'll be able to empower the veterinarians, farmers, and all the industry stakeholders," Pantua said.

Mobile Laboratory

The first Filipino-made mobile biocontainment laboratory was recently donated to the Central Mindanao University (CMU) in Maramag, Bukidnon on October 28, 2022.

In a statement, DOST said, "the mobile biocontainment laboratory, the first of its kind in the country, will initially provide service for both hog and poultry breeders in Bukidnon."

"An estimate of five to 10 farms per day requiring diagnostic tests for livestock can be served by the MBL. The test is equivalent to having 150 to 250 samples pooled and tested in one site," DOST said.

The agency added that the MBL "will support rapid response to potential outbreaks and improve capacity building and disease surveillance that would enable farmers and veterinarians to craft mitigation strategies, preventive and control measures at the point of need."

"It is not just a simple laboratory. This laboratory is a three-partition laboratory, which has an ante-room and an analytical room that houses the molecular and serological equipment, and then a bio-containment facility," Pantua said.

He said the bio-containment facility of the MBL is a "very important" component because it makes sure that the samples are secured and do not cause any problems or any transmission of the infectious agent outside of the containment facility.

The mobile laboratory will be able to process samples in eight to 12 hours, allowing them to release the results within the day. However, if they do it in batches, like a batch of 30 samples, they are able to come out with results in four to five hours.

Pantua said the MBL is not only able to provide early diagnostics for ASF and the Avian Flu but also for other livestock as well.

"Any viruses and bacteria that will require molecular diagnostics and serological diagnostics kayang gawin ng laboratory na to (The laboratory can do it)," Pantua said.

He also said with the MBL, they will be able to bring it to other parts of Mindanao like Soccsksargen, which is also a major livestock producer in Mindanao, to help in surveillance and early detection.

“The Animal Mobile Laboratory Unit (MLU) is unique with state-of-the-art facilities -- PCR, spectrophotometer, and other instruments that make MLU a modern-day functional laboratory. This would address biosafety with actionable results since animals are treated on-site and not taken to the laboratory thus preventing the spread of infectious agents, and problems are addressed at the site. Training and workshops in BioAssets laboratories including the instrument support for a modern-day laboratory will also strengthen the collaboration as well as research and capability building initiatives,” Dr. Ann Villalobos, a DOST Balik Scientist hosted by the CMU, said in a statement.

Beyond testing

The MBL will also allow the government to understand the diseases infecting animals as it could generate important data that could fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.

"The mobile laboratory is a very very good tool for surveillance wherein we can generate meaningful information that we can actually correlate with the pathology, the clinal science," Pantua said.

He said this will allow concerned agencies in the Philippines to understand the disease "on our own and not rely on other countries."

"Once we do this, we can actually tell ourselves why this is happening," Pantua said.

For example, when the ASF was detected in the Philippines and other countries, it was observed that it kills pigs right away. However, upon further studies, it does not.

"But we need to understand that. For us to understand that we need information. For us to get information, we need to do surveillance," Pantua said.

He added, "My call to the government is they need to support... a national surveillance program in such a way that we can actually get meaningful information that we can use to protect the animal industry and also support food security."

Pantua said surveillance is a form "of insurance and protection for our animals."

"The way to protect them is to know that there isn’t any infection or is an infection... It’s very good that the Department of Science and Technology is supporting this initiative and appreciates that we need insurance and protection for those assets that the government is giving to the industry," he said.

Meanwhile, the results produced by the MBL are also seen to help develop vaccines for animals.

"Key to a good vaccine design is knowing the strains, and we have a good surveillance program. We will pretty much know what strains are circulating all over the Philippines and that meaningful information can actually help us in deciding and assessing vaccines that come in the country or vaccines that we ourselves would develop," Pantua said.

He added that it can also improve diagnostic kits we use for the livestock industry.

"We want to make sure that we know the strains and ask ourselves whether the diagnostic kits that we do can actually target or are effective against the strains that we have in the Philippines," Pantua said.

Donation of MBL

Pantua said they launched and donated the MLU to CMU in Bukidnon because the province is among the top livestock producers in the country.

For example, as of December 2021, Bukidnon is the top producer of hogs in the country.

Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority showed that from January to December 2021, it produced 137,284 metric tons (MT), live weight or 8.1 percent of the country's hog production. This is an 8.9 percent increase from its 2021 production of 126,038 MT.

DOST also said in a separate statement that as of December 2021, a total of 251 poultry farms have also been recorded to be operating in the province.

"The first thing that we should consider is the need. We all know in our company that Bukidnon needs it because it has a high concentration of livestock both swine and poultry and even cattle, so kailangan nating suportahan yan (We need to provide them with support)," Pantua said.

Second, he said CMU will play a key role in further developing the MLU.

"Because this is a pilot project this is a pioneering project wherein we have a prototype [and the need to] develop protocols. We needed a partner who is very receptive, who is very welcoming, and we found that in CMU," Pantua said.

He said close collaboration with the academe will allow them to determine the faults of the prototype MLU model and see how else they can improve it.

Following its launch, BioAssets Corporation will deploy an additional 17 units of the MBL in different parts of the country in a year or two.

"What is important about this [is] imagine if we are to build 18 of this, I hope that people appreciate how many jobs we've created, how many families we've helped. This is on top of the help that we are actually giving to the animal industry," Pantua said.

Pantua said in six months, they plan to have the prototype unit travel to another university and deliver a newer and bigger unit to CMU.

Meanwhile, Villalobos said the MBL is a win for farmers in Bukidnon.

"I can envision a win-win situation for the farmers also, this will be a lot of economic ramifications for them... They will not need to transport their sick animals and also the diseases will be treated right away so the healthy animals can be protected," she said.

With the launch of MBL, it is being seen as a welcome development in protecting not only our livestock but our food security as well.

“We recognize that the transfer of the [Mobile Biocontainment Laboratory] to CMU will not just conduct research on biodefense and emerging infectious disease agents but will act as the hub which shall be available and prepared to assist national, regional, and local public health efforts in the event of a bioterrorism or infectious disease emergency,” DOST Undersecretary for R&D Dr. Leah J. Buendia said. RJL