A Baltimore, Maryland startup has come up with a novel way of battling Viral Nervous Necrosis (VNN), a disease that affects over 40 aquaculture species worldwide.
Dr Ken Malone, CEO of startup VakSea Inc, says the aquaculture industry’s big problem has not been the absence of effective vaccine, rather, it is in the way those vaccines are delivered.
“Current methods of delivering vaccines to fish involves injecting fish with vaccine one by one, which is expensive, labor intensive, and stressful to the fish,” says Malone.
VakSea grows the vaccine inside insect larvae, grinds up the larvae, mixes it into fish feed, then feeds it directly to the fish. When the fish eats the feed, they become immune to the disease.
The startup’s proprietary vaccine technology was developed at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the lab of Dr Vik Vakharia beginning in 2014. VakSea filed a provisional patent application in 2016. It is now developing a pellet-based vaccine aimed at protecting European seabass juveniles from VNN and hopes to get it to market over the next 12 to 18 months.
VNN “damages the central nervous system in susceptible fish species and typically affect younger stages of fish (larvae, fry, fingerlings), although older, market-size fish can be affected as well, with losses ranging from 15–100 percent,” according to University of Florida-IFAS Extension researcher Roy P. E. Yanong, in his paper Viral Nervous Necrosis (Betanodavirus) Infections in Fish.
“Infected larvae and juvenile stages often show abnormal swimming behaviour, including vertical positioning and spinning; flexing of the body,” he wrote.
Species susceptible to VNN include red drum, cobia, sea bass, barramundi, gilthead seabream, Pacific bluefin tuna, various grouper species, various flatfish species including halibut and Japanese flounder, and tilapia.
Malone is confident of the potential of VakSea’s proprietary vaccine technology in other species. “We’ve proven it out on the nervous necrosis virus and we know it’s going to work on a large number of species and a large number of other diseases,” he says.