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Call for countries to comply with moratorium on research using live rinderpest virus

FAO/OIE move underpins next steps to ensure the lethal livestock disease remains eradicated for good

23 July 2012, Rome/Paris – FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) are calling on countries to comply with a global moratorium on research which involves working with live rinderpest virus in laboratories.

FAO and OIE are working together to bring about the destruction of potentially dangerous virus samples and biological materials that are currently stored in more than 40 laboratories across the world, some under insufficient levels of biosecurity. Some reserves of rinderpest virus should be kept to produce vaccines and for research in case the disease emerges again in the wild or is released as a result of an accidental or deliberate act.

Rinderpest was officially declared eradicated by OIE and FAO a year ago, meaning the virus that causes this destructive livestock disease no longer circulates in animals and continues to exist only in laboratories. Rinderpest does not affect humans.

In two international resolutions passed in 2011, OIE and FAO Member Countries agreed to destroy remaining stocks of rinderpest virus or to safely store them in a limited number of relevant high containment laboratories that are FAO/OIE approved. They also agreed to ban any research which uses the live virus, unless approved by the two organizations.

The process of cataloguing the still existing virus-containing materials worldwide found that some were being kept under insufficient levels of biosecurity. FAO and OIE are therefore urging countries to comply with the moratorium. The moratorium will remain in place and all future research proposals should be submitted to OIE and FAO for approval, in keeping with the 2011 resolutions. The organizations are currently working together to establish a standard protocol for making requests, as well as detailing the conditions under which such requests would be approved.

Only essential research to be allowed

“The moratorium is pivotal to managing biological risks until an oversight mechanism is established, which would only approve research essential for continued vigilance and preparedness for a reoccurrence of the disease,” stated Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Head of the OIE Scientific and Technical Department. “While rinderpest virus remains present in a large number of laboratories across the world, we cannot say that there is zero risk of a reoccurrence. Priority must be given to destroying remaining non-secured stocks of the virus and maintaining vigilance until this is accomplished,” Dr Miyagishima added.

“While rinderpest has been successfully eradicated, there may be some virus material that would be useful for research or vaccine development,” said Juan Lubroth, FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer. “We must make absolutely sure that this material is kept in just a few high security laboratories to avoid any unacceptable risks. Virus samples must be kept safely or otherwise they should be destroyed.”

“We must remain vigilant so that rinderpest remains a disease of the past, consigned to history and the textbooks of veterinarians to benefit from the lessons we’ve learned,” Lubroth added.

An external committee composed of seven independent experts in the fields of virology, biotechnology, epidemiology, biological threat reduction measures, laboratory safety and security, convened by   FAO and OIE, has advised the two organizations to build on the example set during the post-eradication period for smallpox, a lethal viral disease in humans that was declared eradicated in 1979. Under the supervision of the World Health Organization (WHO) the smallpox virus was isolated and destroyed in all but two laboratories worldwide, where the virus is kept under the tightest security measures. A similar approach should be applied for rinderpest, the experts suggested.   

Destroying the virus should be the main priority. In certain cases, virus-containing materials can be safely transported to an FAO/OIE-approved high containment facility for biologically-secure storage. The two organizations will provide guidance and support to laboratories to help them do this. FAO and OIE will promote and oversee the process of reducing the locations worldwide where the virus will be allowed to continue to exist.

African countries have found a good model, for instance, by agreeing to destroy or transfer their rinderpest material to be kept in the custody of the African Union's Pan African Veterinary Vaccine Centre in Ethiopia. Others could emulate this model.

As part of the rinderpest post-eradication strategy, FAO and OIE Member Countries are committed to maintaining a sufficient level of monitoring and surveillance for rinderpest virus outbreaks until 2020.

The commitment of donors and regional cooperation was key in eradicating rinderpest, only the second disease in history to have been successfully eradicated. Donor funding will continue to be crucial in keeping the world free from rinderpest.

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