ROME - The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have lifted a moratorium on using the live rinderpest virus for approved research. Rinderpest is a highly infectious disease of ruminants, especially cattle.

This moratorium followed the adoption of a Resolution in May 2011 by all OIE Member Countries that urged members to forbid the manipulation of rinderpest virus containing material unless approved by the Veterinary Authority and by FAO and OIE.

Both organizations now have put in place strict criteria and procedures to follow to obtain official approval for any research proposals using rinderpest virus and rinderpest virus-containing materials.

One of the most crucial requirements is that the research should have significant potential to improve food security by reducing the risk of a reoccurrence of the disease. This procedure replaces an earlier complete ban on handling the virus.

In 2011, rinderpest was formally declared eradicated, but stocks of rinderpest virus still exist in labs. In June 2012, a moratorium on handling this virus was put in place after an FAO-OIE survey found the virus continues is still being held in more than 40 labs worldwide, in some cases under inadequate levels of biosecurity and biosafety, FAO relays.

FAO and OIE member countries committed themselves to forbid the manipulation of rinderpest virus-containing material, after rinderpest was officially eradicated, unless approved by the national veterinary authority as well as by FAO and OIE.

"While the global community succeeded in eradicating the rinderpest virus in nature, we need to keep a close eye on virus samples that remain in laboratories," said Juan Lubroth, FAO's chief veterinary officer.

"Smallpox in humans was also eradicated more than 30 years ago, but smallpox, too, had to be painstakingly eliminated from laboratories worldwide until just two high-security locations remained," Lubroth explained. "FAO is committed to assist countries in either destroying or securing any remaining rinderpest viruses held in laboratories to avoid any risks of their release into the natural environment."

The biggest threat to global rinderpest freedom is an accidental release of the virus from one of the labs where the virus is still being held, FAO and the OIE relayed. That could occur due to improper handling in a lab. As a result, FAO and the OIE are also providing support in transferring virus-containing material to approved holding facilities with high levels of biosecurity/biosafety.