Ask a Ranch Vet: Do cattle in the U.S. get mRNA vaccines?

As a large animal veterinarian, I receive this question quite often. Both producers and consumers want to know if the new mRNA vaccine technology used in many of the COVID vaccines is now being used in livestock production. Some are concerned about potential health affects related to this emerging technology.

The answer is “no”. There are currently no mRNA vaccines currently approved or commercially available for use in cattle in the United States. There are other vaccines that are used to prevent diseases in beef cattle herds in the United States, many of which I recommend to my clients for the prevention of diseases in their livestock herds. However, none of these vaccines  contain mRNA technology.

The same is also true for goats and sheep.

For pigs, there is one mRNA vaccine permitted for use. This vaccine was developed in 2018 by Merck Animal Health. It is called SEQUIVITY. This vaccine can be used to prevent various diseases in swine including influenza A, rotavirus, porcine circovirus (PCV), and sapovirus, among others.

What is mRNA technology?

Vaccines that contain mRNA technology work by using messenger RNA—which occurs naturally  in all cells. Once injected into an animal the messenger RNA from the vaccine is “read” by the cells to then create proteins identical to those of the disease causing virus. After being “read” the messenger RNA rapidly breaks down. Upon encountering the newly produced proteins the animal’s immune system recognizes them to be foreign and mounts an immune response, thus protecting the animal from the virus should it ever be encountered in the future.

This is different from traditional vaccine technology, which simply uses a small portion of the dead or weakened virus or bacteria to trigger the immune reaction.

Are mRNA vaccines for livestock currently being researched?

Yes. Research into mRNA vaccines for animal medicine has been underway for over a decade. The USDA Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB) is responsible for the licensing and regulating process in the United States. The USDA would require strenuous testing and review before approving any of these new vaccines for use.

Are there talks about banning mRNA technology for use in livestock?

Yes. There have been several efforts around the country to ban the use of mRNA vaccines in livestock. Idaho legislators introduced a bill that would make it a criminal misdemeanor to give any person or animal any type of mRNA vaccine. Other states have proposed bills that would require special labeling for animal products that came from animals that received mRNA vaccines, including Arizona, Tennessee, and Missouri.

On the other hand, some state farm bureaus have released statements defending veterinary independence and pre-emptively opposing any bans on new vaccines for livestock.

I’ve seen rumors on social media that producers are using or are about to use mRNA vaccines in beef. Is this true?

No. Despite some rumors and false stories going around on the Internet about the use of mRNA vaccines in animals, it’s important to state that there are currently no vaccines licensed for use in beef cattle in the U.S. with mRNA technology. Always check with a trusted source such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA)—they have consistently released statements about the status of these vaccines and related issues.

Is my health impacted by eating meat or dairy from a vaccinated animal?

No because producers are not allowed to put any animal product on the market for a lengthy period of time after the animal has been vaccinated.

Federal regulations call for a mandatory withdrawal period for animals who receive any type of vaccine. This protects consumers from any residual impact entering the food supply. Producers are not allowed to harvest meat or milk from animals who have been vaccinated for a period of several weeks after the vaccine was administered. For most vaccines, the waiting period is 21 days. This allows the animals to fully metabolize their shots, protecting the food supply from any type of organism contamination.

Is there a vaccine mandate for livestock in the U.S.?

While there are no federally mandated vaccinations, many states mandate brucellosis vaccination – usually for dairy heifers. All other vaccinations, whether to administer them or not, is left to the discretion of livestock owners. As a large animal veterinarian and ranch management consultant, I work with my clients to come up with individual vaccine protocols that are suitable for their herds. Various factors go into the decision to use or not use a vaccine including cost-benefit.

I created a unique ranch management software that helps ranchers run cost-benefit analyses for questions exactly like this. Ranch Vision is the only forward-looking ranch planning program available. For example, producers can use it to look at a scenario where they may implement a certain vaccine and compare the potential financial loss through higher mortality rates and/or lower rates of gain if the vaccine is not used with the cost of the vaccine. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of running a vaccine program and can also help answer all those other nagging what-if scenarios livestock producers deal with every day.

DISCLAIMER: This post does not constitute medical advice and should not replace the advice of your veterinarian. As always, please consult of your veterinarian regarding any questions you have about the health of your livestock, don’t ignore professional guidance.

Dr. Rich Brazil, DVM is a ranch veterinarian based in Northern California. He is married to Erin, a fellow veterinarian. Together they have eight children. Dr. Brazil is the founder of Ranch Vision, a ranch profit and planning program.