Rinderpest Virus Wiped Out

The BBC brings good news about the cattle plague (Rinderpest) virus — it has officially been wiped out. The virus has been blamed for widespread famine.

The World Health Organization (WHO) so far has declared only two diseases officially eradicated.

The first was smallpox caused by variola virus (VARV), which was in fact eradicated by application of cowpox. The second was cowpox or rinderpest (caused by the rinderpest virus — RPV). Smallpox had caused epidemics throughout human history with estimated death tolls in the 300-500 million range (as high as 10% of all deaths in the 20th century).

Although rinderpest was used to cure smallpox, on its own it continued causing mass death of cattle herds throughout Europe and Africa for centuries.

More than a third of the population of Ethiopia died in the 19th century, for example, after Italians introduced infected cattle from India.

Vaccination was hindered due to conflict, lack of authority and perhaps even a lack of will from Europeans to solve for destabilization of Africa (preferring wealth accumulation to be controlled from Europe).

The BBC article points out the method used to test and eliminate the virus had to be administered locally, which meant operation in uncontrolled environmental conditions and by non-professionals.

The test, which was developed with the support of the UK’s Department for International Development, was designed to be used by local people in the field and to give reliable results within minutes. It proved highly effective and the technology has been rolled out across Africa. This was particularly important in the later stages of the programme when pockets of the virus remained in war-torn areas of southern Sudan and Somalia. Dr Mike Baron of the IAH told BBC News that it had been too dangerous for outsiders to enter those areas. Experts, he said, would train locals – so called ‘barefoot vets’ – to recognise the disease and administer vaccines. They would work with nomadic tribesmen in the regions and vaccinate herds “on the move”.

This is hugely important to understand for the security community because it highlights how distributed and centralized systems of information can interoperate; two systems of thinking, if you will, one deliberative and controlled (follow the steps handed to you) while the other is exploratory and creative (design the steps for others to follow).

The cost of infection was extremely high as 70% of cattle infected would die. This surely gave the incentive for tests and vaccines to be taken seriously. It also probably is what enabled the broad collaboration across systems despite national, religious and ethic diversity.

…to begin with [in the 1960s] there was little to no co-ordination. Individual countries and groups of countries would attempt to vaccinate cattle, suppressing the disease for a while. But it would then re-appear. Progress was only made [in the 1990s] once large unified projects were established to tackle the disease.

A dedicated global campaign, combined with local administration, was necessary for eradication.

Conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1980s was the main obstacle to the vaccination campaigns but there were other problems too. UC Davis has an excellent write-up about issues of trust, competition and complex economics that were overcome by an Ethiopian scientist in America armed only with an elegantly simple and stable test and vaccine.

The new vaccine proved amazingly powerful in protecting cattle, even when they were injected with 1,000 times a fatal dose of rinderpest. And it met all of Yilma’s criteria for simplicity and heat stability. Requiring no syringes or needles, the vaccine could easily be scratched onto the neck or abdomen of the animal, producing sufficient immune response to ward off the rinderpest virus. Later, the herder could just peel the scab from an animal’s immunization site, grind it up in a saline solution and, from a single calf, have 250,000 additional doses for future vaccinations.

What happens next? Here is an interesting side-note in the NYT:

Still to be decided is how much virus to keep frozen in various countries’ laboratories, along with tissue from infected animals and stocks of vaccine, which is made from live virus. Virologists like to have samples handy for research, but public health experts, fearing laboratory accidents or acts of terrorism, usually press to destroy as much as possible. The smallpox virus is officially supposed to exist only in two lab freezers, one in Atlanta and one in Moscow.

This brings me back to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Rinderpest has been associated with wars and invasions; arguably introduced as a form of biological warfare. The first Italian invasion of 1888 destroyed the capital and foundation of social relations in the Horn of Africa by killing 90% of livestock. Rinderpest also was followed by smallpox but the complete collapse of food sources intensified local disputes and withered resistance. Anyone who wonders if Italy could have had this role only needs to look to the second Italian invasion in 1935, which involved heavy use of mustard gas, tear gas and other agents as well as bombing of field hospitals.

Was Rinderpest unintentionally carried or sent as a strategic weapon? Rinderpest is still listed as “biological warfare” agent so keeping it in Atlanta or Moscow seems like an incredibly high risk practice.

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