On 14 June 2019, scientists at The Pirbright Institute destroyed the final archive stocks of rinderpest virus held in the World Reference Laboratory for Rinderpest. This completed a major milestone in the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) programme to ensure the world remains free from the eradicated disease. Pirbright scientists have been leading the ‘Sequence and Destroy’ project to eliminate virus samples held in the Institute, which will reduce the risk of rinderpest re-emerging through accidental or deliberate release.
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 that time, more than 40 laboratories across 36 countries still held samples of rinderpest making the world still vulnerable to a reoccurrence of the disease. 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.
The Sequence and Destroy project targeted the destruction of virus stocks (apart from a minimal number of reference samples) after their genetic information was recorded through full-genome sequencing. In this way, the biological data is retained, whilst removing the risk posed by holding the live virus. As an OIE Reference Laboratory and the FAO’s World Reference Laboratory (WRL) for rinderpest, Pirbright has led on the implementation of the project.
“The biggest risk of rinderpest re-appearing 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. But at the same time we do not want to destroy what might be important biological information. 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”, said Dr Michael Baron, Honorary Fellow at Pirbright and rinderpest expert for the OIE.
Pirbright scientists have so far destroyed over 2500 samples under the Sequence and Destroy programme. 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 the FAO estimates that its eradication has avoided losses of 920 million USD every year in Africa alone.
“This is a culmination of years of work by Pirbright scientists and our international collaborators; virus samples from as far back as the 1950’s have been destroyed. I feel privileged to have had a part to play in securing our future from rinderpest”, remarked Dr Carrie Batten, Secretariat for the Rinderpest Holding Facility Network and leader of the Non-Vesicular Disease Reference Laboratory at Pirbright.
“The samples were destroyed in The BBSRC National Virology Centre: The Plowright Building, the UK’s flagship high containment facility for livestock diseases that houses the latest genetic sequencing capability. The building is named after Walter Plowright, who developed the rinderpest vaccine that was used to eradicate the disease. It is very appropriate this is where the stocks of rinderpest virus are destroyed”, said Dr Bryan Charleston, Director of The Pirbright Institute.
“The Sequence and Destroy project enabled the collection of essential data on the rinderpest virus, while reducing the risk of disease reoccurrence through the destruction of infectious materials. This is of utmost importance in the post-eradication era, in order to consolidate the work done by veterinarians, animal health workers, national governments, FAO, OIE, and others. The international community applauds The Pirbright Institute’s efforts in this initiative and is thankful to the donors that made it possible – namely, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and Global Affairs Canada”, declared Dr Monique Eloit, OIE Director General.
“FAO recognises the huge step taken by The Pirbright Institute in destroying their historical virus stocks and setting the precedent for other Member Countries who are still keeping the virus. Safeguarding the global freedom of this dreadful disease is a joint responsibility of Member Countries and partner organisations”, proclaimed Dr Samia Metwally, Rinderpest Secretariat for FAO.
Notes to editors
Rinderpest was the first animal disease to be eradicated worldwide. The virus infects cattle, buffalo and yaks but animals such as eland, giraffe, wildebeest, kudu and various antelopes can also contract the disease. Domestic cattle, water buffalo and yaks are very susceptible to rinderpest, with mortality rates reaching up to 100%. Before its eradication, the disease devastated herds in Asia, Europe and Africa.
The Institute became the FAO World Reference Laboratory (WRL) for rinderpest in 1994. It is also an OIE Reference Laboratory for rinderpest and it played an important role in rinderpest eradication, through the development of novel diagnostic tests, training local people and scientists of Africa and Asia in how to use them, and performing thousands of diagnostic tests to advise and monitor the eradication programme.
Pirbright’s Walter Plowright (d.2010) developed a safe, effective rinderpest vaccine whilst working in Kenya that was used in most countries during the eradication campaign. This major development led Walter Plowright to receive the World Food Prize in 1999 and our world-class high-containment laboratory is named after him: The BBSRC National Virology Centre: The Plowright Building.
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About The Pirbright Institute
The Pirbright Institute is a world leading centre of excellence in research and surveillance of virus diseases of farm animals and viruses that spread from animals to humans. Based in the UK and receiving strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Institute works to enhance capability to contain, control and eliminate these economically and medically important diseases through highly innovative fundamental and applied bioscience.
The Institute is an independent company, limited by guarantee and a registered charity, governed by a Board of non-executive Trustee Directors.
With an annual income of nearly £32.1 million from grants and commercial activity, and a total of £14.3 million strategic investment from BBSRC during 2017-2018, the Institute contributes to global food security and health, improving quality of life for animals and people.
For more information about The Pirbright Institute see: www.pirbright.ac.uk
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, its science and its impact: www.bbsrc.ukri.org
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