Moratorium on using live rinderpest virus lifted for approved research

Benefits of future research should be carefully balanced against potential risks

10 July 2013, Rome - A moratorium on using live rinderpest virus for approved research has been lifted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

The moratorium followed the adoption of a Resolution in May 2011 by all OIE Member Countries that urged members to forbid the manipulation of rinderpest virus containing material unless approved by the Veterinary Authority and by FAO and OIE.

The two organizations have now put in place strict criteria and procedures to follow in order to obtain official approval for any research proposals using rinderpest virus and rinderpest virus-containing materials.

One of the most crucial requirements is that the research should have significant potential to improve food security by reducing the risk of a reoccurrence of the disease. This procedure replaces an earlier complete ban on handling the virus.

Rinderpest was formally declared eradicated in 2011, but stocks of rinderpest virus continue to exist in laboratories. In June 2012, a moratorium on handling the virus was imposed after an FAO-OIE survey found that the virus continues to be held in more than 40 laboratories worldwide, in some cases under inadequate levels of biosecurity and biosafety.

When rinderpest was officially eradicated, FAO and OIE member countries committed themselves to forbid the manipulation of rinderpest virus-containing material unless approved by the national veterinary authority as well as by FAO and OIE.

Need to remain vigilant against rinderpest

"While the global community succeeded in eradicating the rinderpest virus in nature, we need to keep a close eye on virus samples that remain in laboratories," said Juan Lubroth, FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer.

"Smallpox in humans was also eradicated more than 30 years ago, but smallpox too had to be painstakingly eliminated from laboratories worldwide until just two high-security locations remained," Lubroth explained. "FAO is committed to assist countries in either destroying or securing any remaining rinderpest viruses held in laboratories to avoid any risks of their release into the natural environment."

According to FAO and the OIE, the biggest threat to global rinderpest freedom is an accidental release of the virus from one of the laboratories where the virus continues to be held. That could occur as the result of improper handling in a laboratory.

FAO and the OIE are also providing support in transferring virus-containing material to approved holding facilities with high levels of biosecurity/biosafety.

OIE Director-General Bernard Vallat said: "An outbreak of rinderpest today would undermine decades of international efforts to eradicate rinderpest. This is why research with the virus must be tightly regulated, and the potential benefits of future research should be carefully weighed against the risks of handling the virus."

During the decades of long campaigns of rinderpest eradication in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, stores of biological materials and vaccines were held in hundreds of laboratories as part of routine surveillance activities to ensure freedom from the disease.

Blood and tissue samples from livestock and wildlife, as well as stocks of vaccines derived from rinderpest virus strains, were kept on hand in case of any emergency outbreaks of rinderpest in cattle populations.

A Joint Rinderpest Advisory Committee, made up of seven external experts, has been given the task of reviewing research proposals, based on objective criteria, and providing recommendations to FAO and OIE on each proposal's validity for final approval.

Research proposals will be reviewed according to the following principles:

  • Outputs or impacts of the research aim to protect food security for local and worldwide populations;
  • Outputs of the research would contribute to sustaining effective and efficient global freedom from rinderpest;
  • Outputs or impacts of the research would provide significant scientific benefits for public health or animal health.

One potential benefit of continuing with scientific research would be to explore the possibility of developing a vaccine based on peste des petits ruminants (PPR) virus, rather than actually using rinderpest virus, to prevent rinderpest in cattle and buffalo. PPR is a disease of sheep and goats caused by a virus similar to rinderpest virus.

A vaccine for both diseases based on PPR could potentially prevent rinderpest from spreading should an outbreak ever re-occur. It would also mean that there would be no need to keep rinderpest virus to replenish rinderpest vaccines when current stocks expire.

With fewer stocks of rinderpest virus in laboratory facilities, the risk of an accidental release would thus be diminished, and with it, rinderpest's continuing threat to global food security.

Photo: ©FAO/Ishara Kodikara
A laboratory technician testing blood samples from cattle to monitor for rinderpest virus