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Too many labs still keep dangerous cattle plague: OIE chief

By Sybille de La Hamaide

PARIS (Reuters) - Too many laboratories still have samples of the devastating cattle disease rinderpest two years after it was eradicated, only the second disease after smallpox to be wiped out, the World Organisation for Animal Health said.

Member countries of the organisation, known as the OIE, committed to destroy their samples or pass them on to a handful of approved high-security laboratories when the world was declared free of rinderpest in 2011.

But two years later, 25 laboratories still have samples, OIE Director General Bernard Vallat told Reuters. He declined to give details about where.

Rinderpest, or cattle plague, did not affect humans directly but decimated hundreds of millions of cattle across Asia, Europe and Africa.

As with smallpox, the aim was to leave only a few samples in high-security laboratories for research or for vaccination in case the disease re-emerged.

"If you release these materials into the wild, they can touch sensitive species and re-trigger a global animal disease even more so that there are no animals vaccinated anymore," Vallat said. "It would be a disaster if it happened."

Scientists argue they need samples for research and would be vulnerable to bioterrorist attack without them to produce vaccines in case, for example, a country or group still has the virus.

However leaving too many samples around, in possibly insecure locations, was an unacceptable risk, Vallat said.

"We have no blue helmet," he said, referring to the headgear worn by U.N. peacekeepers.

"I cannot guarantee that some countries that have the virus did not declare it. Some countries may refuse to be transparent due to political ulterior motives," he said, declining to name any countries.

INVADERS

The Paris-based OIE (Office International des Epizooties) owes its existence to rinderpest: an outbreak of the disease in imported animals in Belgium in 1920 was the impetus for international cooperation in controlling animal diseases and the OIE's creation in 1924.

The disease, eradicated with support from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is believed to have been brought to Europe by Moghul invaders in the 13th century, the OIE said.

Many species of wild and domestic cloven-hoofed animals, including sheep and goats, only showed symptoms of the disease when infected, but mortality reached up to 100 percent in cattle or buffalo herds.

The Americas and Oceania never faced rinderpest epidemics.

As in the case of rinderpest, it was a global campaign that led to the eradication of smallpox, a highly contagious human disease that killed Queen Mary II of England and Louis XV of France and threatened 60 percent of the world's population until a vaccine was found in the 1950s.

Only two high-security laboratories still have samples of smallpox after it eradicated in late 1979 - the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and Russia's State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk.

A joint advisory committee between the 178-member OIE and the FAO on rinderpest advised late last year that strategic rinderpest vaccine stores be maintained in selected locations should the disease reoccur.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Pravin Char)

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