Sequence and destroy: the quest to eliminate the last stocks of deadly rinderpest virus

Labs are being encouraged to sequence their remaining samples of the devastating livestock virus — and then get rid of them for good.

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Scientists who work with the deadly livestock virus rinderpest — only the second disease ever wiped out, after smallpox — achieved a milestone last month when they destroyed a huge proportion of the world’s last remaining virus samples.

But overall progress in eliminating the final laboratory stocks of the virus has proved slow. When the disease was eradicated from the wild in 2011, dozens of labs worldwide, some with poor safety standards, held the virus, which laid waste to cattle across Europe and Asia for thousands of years.

Now, international authorities are renewing a push for samples of rinderpest to be either destroyed or consolidated in high-security facilities to reduce the risk of re-emergence through an accidental or deliberate release. Some labs are participating in a research programme called Sequence and Destroy, which involves sequencing the complete genomes of the various strains they hold before destroying them for good.

“The world is not out of the woods,” says Paul Fenimore, a theoretical biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who has modelled the potential progress of epidemics resulting from a rinderpest release. The chance of an accidental release, although low, exists as long as lab stocks remain, he says. A recurrence could cause “billion-dollar-scale disruption at a national or regional level”, he adds.

 By: Declan Butler/ Nature News

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