New livestock virus in UK and Europe, unlikely to reach NZ

A new livestock virus spreading across Europe and panicking farmers in the Norther Hemisphere is unlikely to reach New Zealand shores.

The Schmallenberg virus, named after German region where the its was first detected, causes fetal congenital malformations and stillbirths in cattle, sheep, and goats.

Spread by the Culicoides midge species, the virus was first identified in late 2011 and was last month reported to have reached the United Kingdom.

The virus strain currently has no official name but is of the family Bunyavirus, genus Orthobunyavirus, a group which includes several other viruses  known to cause diseases in cattle and be transmitted by insects.

Authorities in Europe, who are actively monitoring the disease, note that the path of Schmallenberg is currently impossible to predict. Plans to develop a vaccine to the virus have been announced.

The Schmallenberg virus is not dangerous to humans and is not expected to be a problem in New Zealand (read more below)

The UK SMC has produced a fact sheet for media explaining the basics of the virus (including links to up-to-date reporting sites) and collected the following expert commentary:

Professor Peter Mertens, Research Leader, Vector-borne Viral Diseases Programme, Institute for Animal Health said:

“Reported cases of deformed lambs and calves show that the Schmallenberg Virus spread very effectively across northern Europe in the summer of 2011; the most recent information indicates that it spread southwards, about halfway across France. This means that infections cover a wide area including a significant number of cattle holdings in central France.

“Tracking the number of affected farms in the Netherlands shows that the rate of new cases in sheep farms appears, for the first time, to be slowing down. This may be because the sheep giving birth now got pregnant as the winter approached, when insect numbers in Europe were decreasing and transmission would have slowed down.

“Another new result shows that on some of the infected farms in Europe, the rate of seroconversion (the proportion of animals infected) was very high – up to 100%. This isn’t necessarily good for the spread of a virus and it may be that the infection is ‘burning itself out’ on some farms. It is also looks possible that not every at-risk lamb will be deformed.

“In cattle, the number of infected farms is now increasing – probably because of their longer gestation period. It may rise further and approach the number of sheep farms affected, but that is still an unknown. We also don’t have any firm numbers for the proportion of at-risk calves that will have defects; it may or may not be the same as in sheep, however initial suggestions from Europe suggest that it may be lower than in sheep.

“Schmallenberg virus has some limited similarities to the Bluetongue Virus – another recent exotic, vector-borne virus that spread to northern Europe and then the UK. Bluetongue was effectively controlled with vaccines in the UK and Northern Europe. There are important differences but the emergence of Schmallenberg does show that present conditions in the UK are suited to this type of insect transmitted disease. We have the vector insects, we have susceptible animals and we have the right climate.

“We think the virus is transmitted by biting midges but it’s interesting that there’s a high density of local spread as well, which is different from what we observed in the initial stages of the Bluetongue outbreak in the UK in 2007. At the moment we just don’t know precisely how the virus spreads, including whether there is a route other than the presumed vector. That is the subject of some of the work we are doing in our labs at Pirbright to explore the possibility of transmission by biting midges and by mosquitoes. We are also looking to develop a high-throughput, immunological test for antibodies to the virus which will improve surveillance.”

Matthew Baylis, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology, University of Liverpool said:

“Eighty-three cattle and sheep farms in 14 counties of England are now known to have been infected with Schmallenberg virus.  This is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, as detection currently relies on finding evidence of the actual virus in animals, which is difficult as viral infection is usually transitory.

“A better approach is to test for the antibodies that animals will have raised against the virus, and which then persist in the blood for months. However, no such serological test exists for Schmallenberg virus at present because the virus was only discovered, in Germany, a few months ago. When such a test is successfully developed, it is likely that much larger numbers of farms in Great Britain will be found to have been infected by the virus.

“Schmallenberg virus is transmitted by blood-sucking insects, and biting midges are the main suspects.  In August of 2007 biting midges carrying a different virus, called bluetongue virus, were blown over to England from continental Europe, and in the outbreak that followed, about 150 cattle and sheep farms were infected, mostly in the south-east of England.

“A question regarding Schmallenberg virus is how it could already have spread over a large area of England if, as suggested by Defra, the most suitable times for infected midges to have been blown over to us from the continent was late October or early November.  If the time of introduction was that late in the year, then Schmallenberg must somehow be capable of faster spread than bluetongue and the prospects for cattle and sheep farmers across the UK in 2012 would not be encouraging.

“An alternative, and perhaps more likely explanation, is that Schmallenberg has been with us for some time, but was not noticed; it may even have been present in the UK at or before the time that the virus was first discovered last August in Germany.”

Schmallenberg unlikely in New Zealand

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) have stated that ” the risk of Schmallenberg occurring in New Zealand is at this point negligible or very low, and managed through measures currently in place.”

MAF’s Director of Animal and Animal Products Standards, Mat Stone, said that the lack of Culicoides midges (which carry the virus between hosts)  in New Zealand means the disease is unlikely to spread here. “While importing live animals and embryos presents a theoretical risk of a case arising in New Zealand, the likelihood of any onward transmission is negligible”, Mr Stone said.

“Also, MAF maintains ongoing controls on aircraft and ship arrivals to manage the risk of insects arriving and establishing in New Zealand. MAF also operates surveillance and response mechanisms for early detection of any new pests or diseases.”

NZ Media coverage:

Radio New Zealand: ‘Low risk’ for NZ of newly identified livestock disease

TVNZ:  Sheep and cattle virus sparks alert in UK

Waikato Times: Risk of new virus ‘very low’

TV3 News: Deadly virus killing lambs in UK

Yahoo News NZ: Farmers hope lamb virus won’t reach NZ