Calcivirus Lauded

Australia's Burden Lifted


Scientists accidentally release population-control virus

By Peter Jame Speilmann


BROKEN HILL, Australia- It seems like a script for a Hollywood horror film: A deadly virus escapes from a biohazard lab. Corpses litter the landscape as a plague spreads across a continent.
But rather than flee in terror, Australians are cheering a virus that is wiping out rabbits across the outback. The real plague, people say, is the rabbit population.
"It's history, and we'll look back on this month a say what a wonderful thing it was," said sheep rancher David Lord.
Australians do not view rabbits as cute, carrot-nibbling harbringers of Easter [DOOM? -ed.]. Most see them as pests that gobble down native plants and farm crops.
The trouble began in 1859, when Victorian landowner Thomas Austin inported a dozen wild rabbits, intending to shoot them for sport. Instead, he let them loose to breed.
And breed they did: By the 1940's, Australia had an estimated 600 MILLION RABBITS. In the 1950's, scientists released myxomatosis, a virus from Bazil that is deadly to rabbits. Within two years, fewer than 100 million rabbits remained. But the survivors began building up immunity--and their numbers.
So with hundreds of millions of wild bunnies on the loose, scientists burrowed into their own high-tech biohazard bunker on Wardang island, off the southern coast of Australia, to experiment on a new biological bunny killer: calcivirus. The researchers infected a captive population of rabbits with the virus, and insects that bit the bunnies picked it up. Then last month, freak winds blew the insects onto the mainland, and the rabbit-kiler was out of the hat.
In a few weeks, the virus has spread throughout the states of South Australia and New South Wales, and scientists say attempts to isolate it have failed.
On Monday, wildlife officials said they had counted 850,000 dead rabbits just in Flinder Ranges National Park, 125 miles west of Broken Hill. National Parks and Wildlife Ranger David Peacock said his staff had counted 22 dead rabbits per acre.
"And most rabbit deaths, according to our scientists, are supposed to occur under the ground," he said. "So the figure for dead rabbits taken off the park is horrendous."
Not that Peacock was mourning the bunnies.
"As far as I'm concerned, the calicivirus is the best news possible," he said. With the virus on the loose, he said, "it's a bloody paradise."
There is a small opposition to production of the virus. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals criticized the calicivirus work even in the research stage, fearing the virus could mutate and infect native Australian animals or even humans.
Members also said the virus can cause rabbits to die cruelly suffering internal hemorrhaging for 24 to 40 hours before dying.
Scientists said there was no danger the virus would attack humans or other animal species, noting that it had been released among rabbit populations in China and Europe without any apparent mutations.
And most Australians are grateful. many are calling for an intentional release elsewhere in the country to speed up its spread.
Peacock said that with the rabbits dying, native plants finally will have a chance to flourish: They will be able to drop seed, wait for rain, and sprout--unmolested by rabbits feeding on baby shoots.
"We may actually get some plants surviving to adulthood," Peacock said. Peacock said Flinders Ranges National Park has about 75 rabbits per acre. "The Australian environment must just groan in joy aty having that weight of grazing taken off the land."

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