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Pirbright rinderpest virus.jpg The Pirbright Institute

Pirbright destroys final rinderpest virus samples

Action follows eradication of deadly cattle disease.

On June 14, scientists at The Pirbright Institute in the U.K. destroyed the final archive stocks of rinderpest virus held in the World Reference Laboratory for rinderpest.

According to the announcement, this completed a major milestone in the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) program to ensure that the world remains free from the eradicated disease.

Rinderpest virus caused the most lethal cattle disease ever known, but after a huge global campaign, it officially became the second disease to be eradicated, after smallpox, in 2011. However, at the time, more than 40 laboratories across 36 countries still held samples of rinderpest, making the world still vulnerable to a reoccurrence of the disease, the institute said.

“The biggest risk of rinderpest reappearing comes from an accidental escape from a laboratory -- something that might be possible in the future if stocks are kept, even though no one is working on the virus,” said Dr. Michael Baron, honorary fellow at Pirbright and OIE rinderpest expert.

In a bid to protect the world from this devastating virus, FAO and OIE designated some high-containment laboratories as "Rinderpest holding facilities" (RHF) — including Pirbright — to hold virus stocks and encouraged other laboratories to send their rinderpest samples to these designated holding facilities.

As an OIE Reference Laboratory and FAO World Reference Laboratory for rinderpest, Pirbright scientists lead the implementation of the "sequence and destroy" project to eliminate virus samples held in the institute, the announcement said. The project targeted the destruction of remaining virus stocks (apart from a minimal number of reference samples) after their genetic information was recorded through full-genome sequencing.

“By capturing that information and then destroying the oldest and largest archive of the actual virus, we hope to set an example to other laboratories and encourage them to get rid of their remaining lab samples,” Baron said.

“This is a culmination of years of work by Pirbright scientists and our international collaborators; over 2,500 virus samples from as far back as the 1950s have been destroyed,” said Dr. Carrie Batten, chair for the RHF network and leader of the Non-Vesicular Disease Reference Laboratory at Pirbright.

The destruction of the last archived virus stocks held by Pirbright is a highly significant step in securing global freedom from rinderpest, which is imperative considering that FAO estimates that its eradication has avoided losses of $920 million every year in Africa alone, the institute said.

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