A rapid antigen test (RAT) that detects facial eczema (FE) in ruminants will help manage a disease that costs the New Zealand economy more than $200 million each year, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said today.
MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund will invest more than $35,000 in a project with Tokaora Diagnostics to develop a prototype facial eczema RAT and undertake field testing. The test could be used with sheep, cattle, and deer but initial trials will focus on dairy cattle, the Ministry said in a statement.
“FE is a disease of the liver and often doesn’t show physical symptoms until it’s too late to save the animal,” says MPI’s director of investment programmes, Steve Penno.
“Currently there’s no cheap, on-farm diagnostic on the market, so we’re supporting Tokaora Diagnostics to take their proof-of-concept test to the next stage.”
Tokaora Diagnostics is a family-owned research company headed by chief researcher, Frey Livingston and his mother, Pam, who is the managing director. The company conducted initial research and development through start-up grants from Callaghan Innovation. It also won the Venture Taranaki Power Up Awards in 2022 and received mentoring through the Sprout Agritech Accelerator programme.
“We’re grateful to have received so much support to make an ‘invisible’ problem visible,” says Frey Livingston.
“Right now, farmers can test for the disease through blood samples taken by vets but it is expensive and time consuming. With our solution, farmers will be able to do the testing themselves quickly and easily via nasal mucus or saliva.”
Financial losses from FE in New Zealand have been estimated as high as $274 million per year from lost production, and the cost of labour, treatment, and deceased animals.
“By detecting facial eczema accurately we’d expect to see significant cost savings on farms in affected areas,” says Pam Livingston.
“It will enable farmers to surveillance test, which will facilitate timely treatment. It will also allow more informed purchasing, breeding, and culling decisions. For vets, it will be a quick diagnostic tool when called to a poorly animal, and for researchers it will give a timely answer to the ‘who has it and how badly’ question. And, of course, improved animal welfare is a high priority.”
Mr Penno said FE was a long-standing issue for New Zealand’s agricultural sector.
“And with climate change, it’s expected to get worse as the toxic spores that cause the disease are more likely to grow in warm and humid conditions,” he said.
“MPI has invested in a range of projects aimed at combating FE, including breeding spore-resistant grass, and working with vets, dairy farmers, and rural professionals to raise awareness about how to take preventative action.
“This project is another step towards better managing this disease.”