A new perspective from APHIS’ Clifford

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In July, JAVMA News talked with Dr. John R. Clifford, the deputy administrator of Veterinary Services in the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, about the agency’s new strategic outlook and current issues.

Dr. John R. Clifford (Courtesy of USDA)

Prior to becoming deputy administrator in 2004, Dr. Clifford served as acting deputy administrator. Earlier, he was the associate deputy administrator of the National Animal Health and Policy program, and from 1997-2002, he served as assistant deputy administrator. Dr. Clifford also has extensive field experience. He joined the APHIS staff in 1985 after working in a private mixed animal practice. The University of Missouri-Columbia awarded him his DVM degree in 1983.

To what degree do you anticipate that porcine epidemic diarrhea virus vaccines for use in sows will prevent transmission of this virus, which has been reinfecting U.S. herds?

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The swine practitioners and researchers will continue to look at field trials and how effective those particular vaccines will be in providing immunity in the sows. The primary target here is the sows, and it’s got to be immunity that’s passed through their milk to the baby pigs to protect them from this coronavirus. I also think that practitioners and researchers will continue to utilize some of their other methods to improve immunity in those sows. It’s still too early to tell how effective these vaccines are going to be.

Please elaborate on your comment at the World Pork Expo in June that you want to build a model with veterinarians and producers to handle the next organism that comes into the country differently than PEDv was.

Over the last several years, APHIS Veterinary Services has been positioning ourselves through a new strategic outlook for the future as well as going through some reorganization. There are many components to this. Basically, we’re aligning ourselves to be more of an organization of animal health and not an organization that specifically addresses just a few diseases. The model I was referring to that we’re in the process of developing—and actually putting out a white paper on for comment—is around the issue of emerging diseases. It’s got a number of components to it such as it’s important for us to have national reporting of certain diseases and emerging diseases so that we can effectively address these issues.

It’s important to note that reporting does not mean that you’re going to take action. First you’ve got to have the knowledge and information on what’s happening. We need diagnostics and surveillance to be able to identify an emerging disease or a disease that’s not present in the U.S.

The other component is what actions you would take. Very early on in that process, you may need to put a stop movement on the primary premises involved to get a handle on what you’re dealing with and how best to address it. So basically, you would do your initial epidemiology to look at the pathway through which it entered, whether it was an emerging disease from within the U.S., a disease that changed in its clinical picture, or a disease like PED that entered from another country.

As we gather information through better epidemiology, it will help better inform us about what actions to take. The actions could be a whole host of things, from an eradication effort—and that can take on many approaches, it doesn’t have to be depopulation—to the use of vaccine technology to education and research to deciding that it’s best not to do anything. From the industry standpoint, it’s going to be important for them to know that if we’re going to take such action as a stop order, we’re not going to do that in a way that’s going to put producers out of business and inhibit commerce broadly.

What is the white paper time line?

I don’t have an exact time line but hopefully not too long.

What more can you say about Veterinary Services’ “A New Perspective” document?

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I have elevated our senior executives to be more strategic in helping the overall structure of VS to look at the vision for the future and help implement the reorganization to better align us for our future. Our “A New Perspective” document lays out the specifics about what we’re trying to accomplish. Part of that is a one-health strategy. We’ve implemented a one-health office. We’re very much involved with one-health issues—right now, for example, with issues from antimicrobial resistance to food safety to assisting our National Veterinary Services Laboratories with Salmonella diagnostics in bearded dragons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requested our assistance in that. Obviously, bearded dragons are not farmed animals, but they’re a lizard-type pet that passes Salmonella on to people. We provide assistance to many of our partners, from the CDC to the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. We’re not doing those from a regulatory standpoint; we’re not to be an extension of them, but to provide additional services and help producers in the farming industry find better alternatives and answers to animal health issues.

What are the next steps APHIS plans to take to implement its recently proposed simplified biologics efficacy labeling and its 2011 proposed rule to replace the four levels of effectiveness with a uniform label format? Will the label changes be implemented concurrently?

We’re currently evaluating the comments on the proposed rule. In the preamble, we recommended a four-year implementation period to allow for the transition from current labels to new labels. We will review those comments and then basically, within that implementation period, we’re proposing that licensees would request an extension under certain conditions, maybe even for two years, to make these changes. We would then take action to implement the rule over time. We’ll be working very closely with the industry to address them.

Are veterinarians becoming accustomed to the revised National Veterinary Accreditation Program, and is the renewal rate high enough to continue serving national needs?

Yes, the renewal rate is about 85 percent, and in addition, we’ve been getting about 2,600 new veterinarians per year over the last three years. With that renewal rate and new veterinarians, there should be more than an adequate supply of accredited veterinarians.

A year ago, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) upgraded the U.S. classification to “negligible risk” of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Since then, have any cases been detected, and have any new mitigation strategies been put in place to prevent BSE introduction and spread?

No, there are no new mitigation strategies. The last case that was detected in the U.S. was in California in April of 2012. It was an atypical BSE case. We’ve seen atypical cases in older animals, and they are not related in any way to contaminated beef, and, in fact, they may arise from spontaneous occurrence in older cattle. The current surveillance and actions by FDA and APHIS far exceeds the requirements of OIE, and FDA’s feed ban remains a very effective strategy in addressing transmission of BSE.

Do foot-and-mouth disease preparedness efforts focus on education and on trade decisions based on the world map showing distribution of FMD by country?

FMD still exists in a lot of countries around the world. With regard to the actions that we take for our preparedness and prevention of FMD, it’s a continual effort. Even though we’ve been free of the disease since 1929, we still take this disease very seriously and will continue to do so in protection of the U.S. livestock industry. Part of that preparedness has to do with the development and analysis of the importation of animals and products from countries that are either free or free with vaccination. The mitigations we have in place for those countries are, we believe, scientifically sound in reducing the risk of FMD introduction into the U.S. to a very, very low risk.

The most likely way FMD would come into the country would be illegal movement of a product into the U.S. The other component is our own preparedness here. We continue to work with the different sectors of the industry in developing strategies for vaccine use as well as for continuity of operations. Working together will enable us to address a major disease issue together to minimize the impact.

Does illegal movement fall under Customs?

It’s both through Customs and Border Patrol, but we also have teams within APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine that do our own looking for illegal products within the U.S. and do some of our own investigative work after products have come over the border. In addition, our land border ports from Mexico and Canada are there to protect the U.S. and hopefully prevent movement of illegal products into the U.S. They are handled and overseen by the Customs and Border Patrol. We provide the policy and regulatory oversight they use.

In May, APHIS made four changes to the program standards for chronic wasting disease to bring them into alignment with the rule that established the herd certification program. What is the importance of this action?

It was to make sure there was no confusion between the standards and the rule. With regard to the standards document, I know there are concerns about the program from both sides, from the farm-raised cervid industry itself to the Department of Natural Resources, the wildlife side of this issue. I think we’ve done the best we can to strike the proper balance, and we’ll see how things go with the program.

You’ve been in your current position since 2004. Is it still a challenge? Do you miss private practice?

I was in a mixed practice, predominantly dairy cattle. I enjoyed that work, but I really don’t miss it. I love serving American agriculture and the farm animal industry in this country, and I love being a representative and an advocate for them. I want to make sure that they’re able to have healthy livestock. I enjoy working for the USDA and representing this country internationally as well as domestically. Sometimes, it can be stressful, but I think the enjoyment far outweighs any of the downsides.