Rabbit Virus Strikes New Zealand

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA--An outbreak of rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) in New Zealand was confirmed yesterday by the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture (MAF). Officials suspect the virus may have been intentionally released, despite MAF's decision last month not to use RCD to control rabbit populations. Police have set up roadblocks near Cromwell, on the South Island, and enforced a no-fly zone by the airport in attempts to stop the spread.

MAF had decided that not enough was known about the virus to introduce it (ScienceNOW, 10 July). But now officials say several dead rabbits on a farm near Cromwell, on the South Island, tested positive for the virus. Some four other properties also appear to have RCD-affected rabbits. Authorities have quarantined affected areas and are monitoring for new outbreaks, including searches for dead rabbits by helicopter. MAF is also considering shooting and poisoning animals within affected areas. MAF also has 20,000 doses of RCD vaccine available for pet rabbits.

New Zealand's Chief Veterinary Officer, Barry O'Neil, believes the New Zealand outbreak is no accident. "This is not the work of an insect vector," he says. "It's the wrong time of year; there's snow on the ground." He also notes that the outbreak occurred in rabbit-infested country, with rabbits across a wide area appearing to have been infected around the same time.

O'Neil says there were rumors among farmers that the virus was illegally introduced last week. South Island farmers have been embittered by the ministry's refusal to conduct a controlled release of the virus. New Zealand's Biosecurity Act stipulates heavy penalties for the deliberate introduction of an unwanted organism.