How Chile is taking lessons learned from its Covid-19 response to address antibiotic use in salmon farming

Benchmark Genetics Director David Farcas
Benchmark Genetics Director David Farcas | Photo courtesy of David Farcas/LinkedIn
6 Min

The bacterial disease salmon rickettsial syndrome (SRS) has been a major impediment toward the Chilean salmon-farming industry's achievement of its pledge to reduce its antibiotic usage 50 percent by 2025.

Through the Yelcho Project, which was launched in March 2024 as part of a larger collaboration to push for a reduction in the industry’s use of antibiotics, the industry is seeking to apply lessons from Chile's highly successful Covid-19 approach in its efforts to tackle SRS. Just two years after Chile began its vaccinations against Covid-19, about 92 percent of the country's population had been administered at least one dose, far outpacing all of its neighbors and many countries worldwide, due in large part to an approach by the government to obtain as many vaccine doses as possible. It diversified its agreements with potential suppliers, while academic institutions ensured doses by partnering with laboratories to perform clinical trials in the country.

The Yelcho Project has turned toward David Farcas, an expert in animal health after decades of leading veterinary health firm Centrovet. During the Covid-19 crisis, he chaired the Science and Technology Ministry’s Committee of Scientific Advisors that led the evaluation of Covid-19 vaccines and coordinated Phase 3 trials of the vaccines in Chile. In an interview with SeafoodSource, Farcas and Daniel Woywood, the technical manager at Yelcho Project partner Aquabench, discussed how lessons learned from the Covid pandemic can be translated to the salmon industry.

SeafoodSource: David, you worked on Chile’s campaign against Covid-19. What parallels can you draw between your work with Covid-19 and your work now with the Yelcho Project?

Farcas: I’d say the focus and the need to come up with very practical solutions in a very short period of time is one. Second, this is very pragmatic and not political. What we did during Covid was team up with pharmaceutical companies that had Covid prototypes, providing them the right incentives in order for us to be first in line when it came time to distribution. We offered to team up with them during the development stage of the vaccine in Phase 3 trials. We didn’t have the pharmaceutical capability, but we had a sensible way of testing the vaccine efficacy and safety in our population.

By having an early commitment with the pharmaceutical companies, we ended up being their partners, so when the vaccines were available, they came to us first. The parallel is the pragmatism, the commitments, and collaboration. For Covid, we were able to use the power of the state to have first priority in making alliances with pharmaceutical companies at the CEO level for acquiring the vaccine, and the universities were in charge of testing; the state also was in charge of the regulation and delivery. That was our inspiration for the Yelcho Project.

SeafoodSource: How did the Yelcho Project come about?

Farcas: I had a role in a pharmaceutical company [Centrovet] for years. We sold this company to a French conglomerate [Virbac] a few years ago, so I was unemployed and devoted my time to Covid for a year and a half. When Covid ended, just by coincidence, three of the salmon farmers called me and said, “We have an issue with SRS. We have a fantastic product, producing the best protein in the world, but we have a challenge in reducing antibiotics use. Why don’t you come up with a proposal for us to solve it?” Three different general managers asked me this on different occasions.

It was clear we have an opportunity here, and for me personally, it was a way to give back to this fantastic industry. I found the task quite challenging, but if you look at the commitment they showed, holding the conversations with an open mind, it was clear that all the stars were aligned for this project to start.

Aquabench was available from day one to help in the organization and coordination of the project, so we ended up having a fantastic team, formed by us, Aquabench, and one company CEO comprising the managing team. Then, there is a bigger team composed of company managers or owners, SAG [the Chilean Agricultural and Livestock Service], and Sernapesca [Chile’s national fisheries and aquaculture service]. We’re working in a very pragmatic way.

It took us a bit longer than expected – about a year to organize and do the kick-off – because companies did not want to do anything before it was clear that we would be able to come up with something. They wanted to play it safe.

SeafoodSource: Does that mean increasing vaccinations as a preventative measure?

Woywood: It means increasing the efficacy of the vaccines and improving the vaccination strategy. In terms of vaccine efficacy, the last vaccine introduced to the market was developed over 10 years ago. So, it’s an old vaccine, especially if you compare it to Covid. There are new vaccine technologies as well, which improve the efficacy.

On the other hand, you can improve the vaccination strategy. For example, you can carry out two vaccinations in the freshwater stage, or you can do a booster in saltwater during the grow-out stage.

SeafoodSource: Daniel, you come from Aquabench, while David is a member of the board at Benchmark Genetics. Is Benchmark participating in this initiative as well?

Farcas: Benchmark places a big emphasis on SRS reduction, but that comes from the genetics side. This is a pharmaceutical, immunological initiative; the focus is on vaccines.

I was on the original team that introduced the Pincoy Project, led by Skretting, which was focused on best practices. There are different focuses now with Yelcho. You have the CEOs of participating companies committing to solutions. This is a hierarchical company decision where we can contribute in a very important way.

SeafoodSource: The project aims for a significant reduction in antibiotics use. Is there a specific percentage or timeline?

Farcas: We have decided not to ... 

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