Last week the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) called for the destruction of remaining stocks of the eradicated cattle virus, Rinderpest. Commenting on the news is Dr. Roger Breeze, GMU Biodefense adjunct faculty, current President of the Centaur Science Group, and former Director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
Dr. Roger Breeze:
“In 2011, the developing world celebrated global eradication of Rinderpest, a lethal viral disease of cattle responsible for catastrophic outbreaks in Europe that started with the Mongol invasions, frame our emergency response to epidemics to this day, and were the direct triggers for establishment of the veterinary profession and the International Office of Epizootics (OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health). Beyond catastrophic were the consequences of the Great African Rinderpest epidemic that began when an invading Italian Army brought Rinderpest-infected cattle from India into Ethiopia in 1887. At least 90% of cattle died and the infection spread throughout Africa, depriving people of their food, transport, draft animals and family life-savings at a stroke and precipitating a severe famine, enormous mortality and wars that rippled through the continent for a decade.
Like smallpox, Rinderpest was eradicated with 20th century technologies – a live attenuated vaccine made in the developing world and simple immunological tests – backed by a surprisingly inexpensive but sustained international effort based on grass-roots capabilities and enthusiastic participation of the herdsmen most concerned. The world community that conceived, funded and sustained these efforts deserves enormous credit.
Now we face a different challenge – accidental or deliberate release of Rinderpest into a global cattle population that is totally susceptible and through much of Africa and Asia ill supported by veterinary surveillance services. Live attenuated Rinderpest vaccine strains and virulent challenge strains exist in laboratories and vaccine facilities formerly engaged in the global eradication campaign. The OIE and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are leading international efforts to destroy remaining stocks of Rinderpest virus or to transfer these to secure Biosafety level 3 laboratories so that unauthorized access to virus is prevented and any work is conducted under appropriate biological safety. Clearly this is something to be encouraged, although one wishes for a somewhat stronger verb. The OIE and FAO are also developing a contingency plan (as yet unpublished) for a vaccine bank and diagnostic support should an outbreak occur. This is also a wise investment.
But the OIE is the World Organization for Animal Health not Animal Biodefense and OIE and FAO both operate on shoestring budgets that do not allow for a global Rinderpest preparedness plan that can be sustained over decades to come. A deliberate attack on North American or European animal agriculture with native or synthetic Rinderpest virus would cause significant damage, although nothing like historic outbreaks (there is a saying that “a good barb wire fence will stop Rinderpest”). The tragedy would be a deliberate release that re-infected the developing world to reverse the major economic gains of the past 20 years and condemn the poorest of the poor to hunger, starvation and death. President Obama’s National Strategy for Biosurveillance and the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats clearly set out what we as a nation need to work towards at home and abroad with our international partners to counter these natural and deliberate threats to people, animals and plants. Let’s finish the job with Rinderpest by ensuring a global preparedness capability that stands the test of time.”