World’s first bee vaccine lands at UGA

CVM Teaching Apiary assists in development

Dr. Joerg Mayer, DVM, walks into the teaching apiary outside of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Athens like he’s one of them – no suit, no smoke, just him and them.

It’s okay. They know him there. His students know the bees, too, because Mayer pioneered one of the most robust honeybee health education programs in the United States to familiarize future veterinarians with bees and the diseases that threaten them. The prestige of the program attracted the attention of the CEO of Dalan Animal Health, maker of the world’s first honeybee vaccine, which has put UGA at the forefront of honeybee protection.

From hobby to job

Dr. Joerg Mayer, Professor, Small Animal Medicine & Surgery

Mayer began incorporating his backyard hobby into his profession on the Zoological Teaching Service at the VTH after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned over-the-counter sales of antimicrobial drugs, including some antibiotics, in 2017.

“It became very obvious to me that this was going to become a future problem, so I developed the curriculum here,” Mayer said.

Before that, beekeepers could walk into any feed supply store and buy antibiotics to sprinkle into their hives when they suspected an outbreak of bacterial disease. “Now the FDA has said that’s no longer a possibility and if you want to treat your honeybees with an antibiotic you need to go to your veterinarian and get a veterinary feed directive (or a prescription),” Mayer explained.

He refers to the outcome of the FDA’s action – which was finalized in 2017 with a complete ban on over-the-counter sales of antibiotics – as a “shotgun wedding” between beekeepers and veterinarians, because a visit from the vet (or a “hive call,” as it were) is associated with expenses for the beekeeper, and most veterinarians are unfamiliar with bees and their diseases and therefore reluctant to prescribe medications for them.

“This is what fueled me to create this program here because I knew that in the future many more of our graduates are going to get that phone call from either hobbyist beekeepers or commercial beekeepers saying, ‘Listen, I think my hive is infected with this disease or that disease and I need antibiotics. Do you think you can prescribe an antibiotic?’ I think all my students finishing this rotation would feel extremely confident and comfortable doing that, so it takes that awkwardness out of the equation.”

Students start learning how to treat bees during their first year of vet school through the UGA Honeybee Vet Club. In year four they can sign up for the three-week honeybee rotation and receive a certificate in Apiary Health.

On the forefront of honeybee health

At the same time Mayer was introducing the teaching hives into the VTH curriculum, Dr. Annette Kleiser was working to bring a promising vaccine against American foulbrood disease out of the research lab at the University of Helsinki in Finland and into the marketplace.

Kleiser previously worked with universities to translate promising research ideas into real-world products.

Dr. Annette Kleiser, CEO of Dalan Animal Health

“Typically you see the same innovation over and over, you know, little advancements that are important, nothing that is completely different and novel,” she says. Until the University of Helsinki came calling with this idea for a bee vaccine.

“I was just blown away,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Somebody has to do this.’ We all know it’s a big problem. Bees are dying and while there are many (reasons) why they’re dying disease is a major factor. They are livestock and we depend on them and we’re not going to address pesticides or monocultures any time soon – those are policy decisions – but we know vaccines work and this research has shown it seems to work in bees. This is something we can do now. We don’t have to wait 20 years.”

Along with verifying the efficacy and finding a manufacturer, Kleiser and her group at Dalan had to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Veterinary Biologics to treat the new vaccine the same as vaccines for other livestock.

“We had to make the case that this is a livestock vaccine and should be regulated just like a vaccine for a pig or a dog or a cat or a cow,” Kleiser said. The USDA agreed, and Kleiser went searching for a university partner to test and further develop the vaccine.

“I was contacted by her because she has heard we are one of the very few vet schools that has a bee medicine rotation program. She was intrigued, so she came to visit us in Athens,” Mayer says.

Kleiser was living in Los Angeles at the time. Her team at Dalan was virtual – experts scattered throughout the U.S. and the world – but when she saw that approval was at hand, she knew she needed to bring the team together in one location.

“I had a long wish list of where this should be – a major veterinary school, a major university, close to an international airport, climate where you could have bees and do research with bees not for just two months out of the year but nine or 10 months out of the year, and an animal health presence with companies in the space, talent available. Athens met every single criteria we were looking for.”

Kleiser reached out to Mayer, who showed her the teaching hives and introduced her Dr. Keith Delaplane, an entomologist who oversees the honeybee program in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

UGA CVM was the first veterinary school in the nation to develop a bee medicine program. (UGA Marketing and Communications)

A new chapter in veterinary medicine

The development of the world’s first bee vaccine has made news repeatedly in recent months, culminating most recently with the USDA’s provisional approval of the vaccine. Much like the FDA’s emergency approval of the COVID vaccine during the height of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, this approval will allow Dalan to manufacture and distribute the vaccine while it is still going through final approval.

The conditional license is predicated on the fact that there is no other treatment for American foulbrood disease available. A bacterial disease that is highly transmissible in the wild, American foulbrood targets the larvae of a hive. There is no cure; the entire hive must be burned and buried, per USDA regulations. The spores that cause the disease can remain viable in the environment for up to 40 years.

Fewer Americans than ever before are involved in agriculture, and fewer still realize the significance of honeybees. That’s why the level of interest in the vaccine took Kleiser by surprise.

Dalan and UGA have not only raised awareness of the importance of honeybee health, they’ve also introduced future veterinarians to another field of specialty they didn’t previously know existed.

“For me, we opened the door and now I’m hoping universities will follow,” Kleiser says. Dalan employs one veterinary student from the CVM already, and she hears often from others who exclaim over the revelation of a new career path. Some are surprised that an interest in insects doesn’t limit them to entomology; they can specialize in insect health as veterinarians. They can also work in the pharmaceutical industry developing vaccines for insects.

With Dalan in town and field trials running at UGA, Mayer is looking forward to the future.

“This is an exciting new chapter in veterinary medicine. This has never been done, a vaccine for invertebrates,” he says. “I’m just excited to be a small part of it.”