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Gene-altered pigs may stop deadly virus

Genus Plc has developed pigs that are genetically modified to resist a viral disease

The company is preparing to enter talks with China's regulatory authorities to determine whether it can forge a path to market for its gene-edited lines of live hogs and boar semen for artificial insemination.

Hong Kong

AS CHINA struggles to stem a contagious, hog-ravaging disease, a British company offers some hope. But it may first need to convince consumers and the government that it's safe.

Genus Plc, one of the world's largest animal genetics companies, has developed pigs that are genetically modified to resist a viral disease that spread across China's farms more than a decade ago. It's now also eyeing ways to stamp out a more lethal contagion - African swine fever, which is threatening to wipe out more than a quarter of the nation's herd.

The company, based in Basingstoke, England, is preparing to enter talks with China's regulatory authorities to determine whether it can forge a path to market for its gene-edited lines of live hogs and boar semen for artificial insemination. China bans so-called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food, and consumers there are wary of them after numerous food-safety scandals.

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The process may take several years, said Matt Culbertson, director of global product development at Genus's pig improvement unit known as PIC. The company is collaborating with Beijing Capital Agribusiness Co (BCA), a livestock breeding firm part-owned by the Beijing municipal government. The partnership will leverage the British company's technical and patent-protected expertise in developing disease-defying and gene-enhanced pigs off the distribution and market access of a local company. China has half the planet's pigs and its pork industry is worth about US$128 billion a year.

"In China in particular, the local market and regulators require the involvement of a Chinese-owned enterprise to help develop new technologies in agriculture," Mr Culbertson said on Tuesday in a telephone interview.

"We think with the strategic collaboration with BCA, we found a good partner to develop, register and commercialise this technology for future use in that market."

The genetics company created four distinct "elite populations" of male and female pigs that have been genetically fortified to resist the viral cause of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, known as "blue ear" disease because of the bluish discoloration to the ears and body that infected pigs display.

As part of the tie-up, Genus will receive as much as US$180 million, including cash payments and the potential creation of a joint venture, if virus-free pigs are approved by Chinese regulators. Genus will also receive royalties from any sale of those hogs in China.

Genus has gained 5.2 per cent in London trading since the collaboration was announced on May 16. It's a "transformational" deal that de-risks the development and regulatory process in China, Peel Hunt LLP analysts Charles Hall and Andrew Ford said in a note.

The disease has persisted in China at low levels since a major outbreak in 2006 killed some 400,000 pigs and affected two million more despite the use of vaccines to stem the spread. The PRRS virus, which attacks immune cells in the lungs, costs the US and European hog industries about US$2.5 billion annually in lost revenue, researchers at the University of Edinburgh estimate.

University of Missouri scientist Randall Prather, Kansas State University researcher Raymond Rowland and Genus scientists showed in 2015 and 2017 papers that pigs lacking the so-called CD163 gene are protected against the viral disease.

Genus's blue ear-resistant pigs are housed in facilities in the US, where the company aims to win the Food and Drug Administration's approval to market them, Mr Culbertson said. Discussions with the US regulator have so far been "very positive," said chief operating officer Bill Christianson.

Besides regulators, wooing consumers in China will also be "critical," Mr Christianson said. He points to a range of social and environmental benefits from raising gene-altered hogs, from shielding the animals from illness to helping reduce the use of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections that may latch onto a virus-weakened pig.

"China, like a lot of places, is still coming to grips with some of the advances in technology, and what people would traditionally think of as GMO quite often involves transgenics," Mr Christianson said, referring to the addition of foreign DNA in an organism. "We're not introducing any foreign DNA."

The company's next goal is finding a solution to combat African swine fever, which spread to Georgia in 2007, and then across Eastern Europe and as far west as Belgium. Last August, it was reported for the first time in China, and has subsequently infected pigs in Mongolia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

There's no safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection, nor anything to treat the disease, which kills almost every pig that catches it.

Genus increased its investment in gene-editing last year by 46 per cent to £5 million (S$8.7 million), according to company filings, and has partnered with the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute, famous for creating in 1993 the first cloned animal - Dolly the sheep. Roslin researchers, who began creating blue ear disease-free pigs last June, are studying African swine fever also.

So far, with African swine fever, "there isn't a solution," Genus chief executive officer Karim Bitar told analysts on a Feb 28 conference call.

"It's in a research phase," he said. "Are we actively investing in that arena? Absolutely, yes. So let's just keep our fingers crossed on that one is what I would say." BLOOMBERG