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MPI makes SOS over cattle disease

Ministerial updates about the mycoplasma bovis outbreak reveal the Government asked Australian scientists for help as New Zealand lab staff, deluged with thousands of samples, struggled to keep up with demands for testing. David Williams reports.

The official message was that good progress was being made. On August 7 last year, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) put out its seventh press statement on the outbreak of mycoplasma bovis.

It had been just over a fortnight since the first tests confirmed the highly contagious cow disease was present on a South Canterbury farm – one of 16 farms owned by the same company.

“Our laboratory teams were working at the weekend to continue testing the thousands of milk and blood samples from Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms and neighbouring properties,” incident controller Eve Pleydell said in the Monday press release.

Results from seven of the 16 Van Leeuwen farms had come back negative – “this is good news” – but further testing was required, over two-to-three months, to ensure the farms were clear.

Near the end of the MPI statement, the scale of the challenge for laboratory staff was made clearer: of the 2610 samples received, only 342, or 13.1 percent, had been processed.

Two days later, on August 9, an “in confidence” update to Minister Nathan Guy – released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act – reveals the Government quietly called for international help.

MPI’s chief operations officer Roger Smith said it had requested help of epidemiologists and lab staff from Australia, under the International Animal Health Emergency Reserve Agreement.

“The agreement allows us to use experience and knowledge from Australia, Canada, Ireland, the UK and the USA to help with the response,” Smith’s note says.

“This is the first time New Zealand has activated the agreement and we are currently only seeking support from Australia.”

In his “key messages” to Guy, Smith said it would take another week for Australian staff to arrive.

“Australia reacted positive [sic] to the request and will confirm availability of volunteers within the next 48 hours. Extra staff provided through the agreement will enable the laboratory to continue processing the large number of samples required while ensuring staff workloads are managed responsibly.”

On August 16, Guy was told two epidemiologists and two lab scientists would soon arrive. The previous week, Smith laid out the challenge ahead: “Early estimates suggest that in the order of 30,000 samples will have to be analysed to outline the current spread of M. bovis.”

Ministry for Primary Industries chief operations officer Roger Smith. Photo: Supplied

‘Well under control’

Back on July 28, six days after mycoplasma bovis was first confirmed, MPI’s regional controller Dr Chris Rodwell said in a press release the situation was “well under control”. By that time, MPI had established a field headquarters in Oamaru and issued guidance to worried local farmers.

Rodwell: “At this time we are still determining the scale of this situation through on-farm sampling and testing and tracing of movements of stock on and off the properties.”

But the ministerial updates released to Newsroom show MPI couldn’t tackle the disease alone. Massey University, which has a veterinary pathologist who’s an expert on Mycoplasma bovis, provided a draft national surveillance plan based on testing bulk milk samples. A Sydney University expert was flown to New Zealand to “provide input into both economic analysis process and into the industry advisory group”.

MPI also found itself making policy on the hoof. Disposal options were considered for dealing with dead or euthanised stock – “MPI expects to have initial disposal procedures in place by this weekend”, it said on July 28. It was only on August 2 that a process for assessing and permitting animal movements between restricted farms was “formalised and actioned”. And August 8 was the first time that a ministerial update mentioned auditing the cleaning and disinfection procedures on those restricted farms.

Crucially, lab staff were struggling to keep up with testing demands.

Samples were sent to MPI’s animal health laboratory (AHL) at Wallaceville, just north of Wellington. Preliminary positives were then sent to Landcare Research’s EcoGene lab in Auckland.

While thousands of samples were being sent north, the capacity of its high-containment PC3 laboratory was just 360 milk samples a week. Two further tests, known as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA, were validated to speed up testing on non-milking cattle.

Smith explained to his minister on August 3 that it took up to a week to confirm a positive result. Meanwhile, a negative test didn’t mean a property was disease-free. That process took several rounds of follow-up testing, over a period of up to three months.

(Faced with grumbling farmers, complaining about the delays in getting results, MPI told Guy it was trying to ensure farmers’ expectations of test results “are realistic”.)

By August 8, MPI figures showed that 3551 samples had been submitted for testing, and only 411, or 11.6 percent, had been analysed.

A day later, of 3937 total samples submitted, 542 (13.8 percent) had been analysed – with two confirmed positives and two pending positives (the latter fact wasn’t immediately made public).

Already, attempts had been made to speed things up. Procedures for collecting samples and enabling rapid transport were streamlined (July 28 memo) and the Wallaceville lab was “implementing processes that will increase its capacity to test samples” (August 3).

Testing priority was given to samples initiated by people calling a disease hotline – which left 300 samples taken from mastitic cows by commercial veterinary labs waiting.

A further blow to the programme, mentioned by Smith on August 11, was that New Zealand’s call for more mycoplasma bovis testing reagents caused a worldwide shortage. New supplies of the preferred testing kits had to be manufactured, and were due to arrive the following week.

It was only on August 10 that testing hit top gear. More than 1500 samples of 4424 submitted, or 35 percent, had been analysed. By August 29, more than 10,000 samples had been analysed, at the much-improved ratio of 88 percent. By September 19, analysed samples had topped 20,000.

But it all came at a cost, of course. The projected cost for MPI’s response for August alone was $1.92 million, not including MPI staff time. The biggest costs were $277,000 for lab analysis and a $1.38 million bill, for surveillance activities and movement controls, from AsureQuality.

Tracing trouble

While it was getting on top of lab testing, MPI was coming to grips with tracing the movement of animals between farms – an important factor in limiting the spread of the mycoplasma bovis.

The Van Leeuwen farms were under restricted place notices, which control the movement and handling of stock, as well as introducing precautionary measures such as on-site washing of farm workers’ clothing. Stock linked to the Van Leeuwen farms were traced under MPI’s national animal identification and tracing programme.

By August 1, MPI had identified 13 stock movements or connections from the Van Leeuwen farms to external farms, largely in Canterbury and Otago. Eight days later, of the 14 “trace” properties only one had been visited.

Sixty-two farms – 56 of them with cattle – neighbouring the restricted Van Leeuwen properties were listed as “for surveillance”, but only 18 had been visited.

Tracing and surveillance was being “prioritised by risk of spread”, Guy was told.

Smith told his minister that a herd had been “disbanded” from Van Leeuwen properties on June 1 – before the restrictions were put in place.

“These are currently being investigated and prioritised. The extent and timing of these movements is currently unclear, but contingency planning is underway in case the movements are considered to be a risk of spreading mycoplasma bovis to other farms.”

As the June 1 herd was traced, more properties became linked to Van Leeuwen Dairy Group. By August 10, there were 27 “trace” properties, of which one had been visited. Some of the properties were outside of South Canterbury – “these are being prioritised for sampling”. Except there was another snag.

“As this sampling will be done by private veterinarians, they need to familiarise themselves with the required sampling protocol. This will delay sampling.”

By September 5, MPI had declared there were six infected properties – four from the Van Leeuen Group, one in the Oamaru area and a lifestyle block near Rangiora.

It was on that date, 45 days after the outbreak was confirmed, that Smith told Guy the first round of testing of the 16 Van Leeuwen Dairy Group properties had been completed. Tracing of all “straight forward” stock movements was also complete, although “a small number of movements that are more complex are still being worked on”.

A week later, on September 12, Smith said testing of some neighbouring properties was put on hold until the Van Leeuwen Group farms were declared either free of the disease or infected.

Concern was expressed about whether service bulls should be tested for mycoplasma bovis ahead of the breeding season. But with the cost estimated to be $100 per animal “it may prove too expensive for bull owners to test the animals”.

Infection spreads

Fast-forward to yesterday, when MPI confirmed 17 farms have been infected and traces need to be done on the stock movements to and from nearly 1000 farms.

MPI incident controller David Yard tells Newsroom, via email, there are nine infected farms in South Canterbury, five in Southland, two in Ashburton and one in the Hawke’s Bay. That’s three more properties (two in Southland, one in Ashburton) than was tallied in MPI’s January 9 press statement.

Yard says: “Investigators are currently following up nearly 1000 farms as part of our ongoing surveillance.” Thirty-four properties are now under restricted place notices, while 49 neighbouring properties are under surveillance.

“However, direct traces of animal movements are a priority for our investigation activity as these present a much higher risk than neighbouring properties.”

The latest figures showing the spread of the disease follows a blog post on Wednesday by Lincoln University honorary professor of agri-food systems Keith Woodford. The post quoted MPI correspondence saying that “we are generally not reporting new detections unless there is something of significance or public interest”. Woodford says MPI’s control programme has suffered from “incorrect information and poor communication”.

Meanwhile, last week, Aad van Leeuwen told the Otago Daily Times that MPI’s containment and eradication efforts are “madness”. Though his was the first farm where the disease was identified, he believes it has been in the country for years.

In a press statement, Federated Farmers say speculation about the disease and its origins are adding more stress to worried farmers. The Feds hope mycoplasma bovis can still be eradicated.

Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor also put out a statement yesterday, updating the new number of infected properties and what is being done to combat the spread of the disease. Measures include a national milk-sampling programme, the tracing of animal movements between farms and genome sequencing to work out if the disease strain is the same on all infected farms.

(Newsroom asked MPI for the latest figures for infected farms on Wednesday afternoon, but was told it wasn’t possible to source the information by the close of business that day. MPI’s emailed response arrived two-and-a-half hours after O’Connor’s press statement.)

The penultimate ministerial update from last year provided to Newsroom, from September 26, foreshadowed a crucial meeting set down for October 9, at which MPI was expected to “make a decision as to whether eradication is a feasible option”. On October 12, MPI issued a press statement outlining plans to cull 4000 cattle and decontaminate the seven infected farms.

In that statement, MPI’s director of response Geoff Gwyn said it was “cautiously optimistic” the infection was localised around Oamaru.

Three months on, despite 10 more farms infected and the appearance, at least, that MPI is reluctant to proactively announce new confirmations of the disease, new Minister O’Connor remains optimistic.

He says by the end of next month, officials should have a clearer indication of mycoplasma bovis’s spread and the potential for eradication.

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