Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec 18, 1995
Published on: Canberra Times
6 min read

By WILSON da SILVA

German scientists, concerned about the possible effect on Australian wildlife of the rabbit calicivirus, are said to have rejected a CSIRO request to have samples exported to Australia.

The CSIRO went on to obtain from another source the calicivirus which wiped out millions of rabbits after escaping from CSIRO quarantine two months ago.

The revelation by a German researcher comes after another scientist has backed claims that the rabbit calicivirus is capable of jumping species and amid concern that the CSIRO must release the results of its studies to the public.

“There isn’t any reason to believe that it [the rabbit calicivirus] is safe,” said Dr David Matson, of the Centre for Paediatric Research at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in the United States, who has studied caliciviruses for a number of years.

“This family of viruses crosses species fairly readily,” he said. “We know there are five different distinct genetic groupings and in four of the five, we know that humans have been infected,” he said. Dr Matson, an expert on human caliciviruses, backed statements by Professor Alvin Smith, of the Laboratory for Calicivirus Studies in the US, who warned a week ago that the virus was capable of jumping species and causing serious disease in other animals.

Professor Heinz-Jurger Thiel, a noted German authority on the rabbit strain of the virus, said that the American researchers were justified in their concern.

He revealed that German scientists were so worried about the potential effects of the virus on Australia’s unique ecology that they rejected a request by the CSIRO to import the strain for tests.

Professor Thiel, who was one of the researchers at the Federal Research Centre for the Virus Disease of Animals near Frankfurt where the virus’ genetic structure was first identified, said the president of the centre rejected the request. “We were sceptical about that approach,” Professor Thiel said by telephone. “You have many more animal species in your country than we have here, and it has to be clarified whether that virus can infect other species.”

The rabbit calicivirus escaped from Wardang Island, off the coast of South Australia, on October 16. It has travelled as far as Cameron Corner on the boundary of NSW, Queensland and South Australia. 

The virus, which causes massive internal haemorrhaging leading to death within days, has killed millions of rabbits. When the outbreak occurred, trials on captive rabbits were being conducted on the island by scientists from the country’s premier veterinary centre, the CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories in Geelong, Victoria.

Professor Thiel, now director of the Institute for Virology at Germany’s University of Giessen, urged the Geelong researchers to make the scientific data from the trials publicly available so other scientists could help determine the consequences of the outbreak.

“One would want to know what the results of their studies were with that virus,” he said. “The pressure should be very high for them to release that data. I think the public in Australia has a right to know.”

Professor Alvin Smith said that since raising the alarm last week about the virus jumping to another species, he had spoken at length with a CSIRO official and discussed the results of the Wardang Island trials in detail. He said the studies constituted “a nice piece of work and it’s a very good start. But it proves nothing about whether this virus can spill over into another species.”

He said he was incensed by the CSIRO statements criticising his comments which sought “to shoot the messenger” rather than debate the issues scientifically. The CSIRO had said Professor Smith, whose laboratory at the University of Oregon has been studying the caliciviruses since 1971, had made several factual errors and ignored major advances in the understanding of the virus made in the past five years. Professor Smith said he was shocked by the CSIRO response, and defended his stance.

“There’s absolutely no confusion here; I stand by everything I said,” he stated. “The evidence is there, it’s documented and it’s available to anybody who wants to dig for it. [As far as] people who have worked with the whole spectrum of caliciviruses, everything they know would tell them to be concerned about a species jump.”

Another calicivirus scientist, who declined to be named, criticised the CSIRO for being defensive instead of debating the issue.

“That’s damage control, both political and personal,” he observed.

A CSIRO spokesman said the virus had been tested in the Geelong laboratories for the past three years and enough virus to kill a thousand rabbits had been injected into 28 different species. The virus had failed to survive in any of them. A species jump by the virus was “very unlikely, based on years of observation in 40 countries around the world”.