ANIMAL biosecurity experts are urging an 'immediate conversation' with livestock producers about the need to import a live lumpy skin disease virus in order to work on vaccines and diagnostics.
The threat of the disease reaching Australia is now imminent and the consequences would be devastating, including the immediate shutting down of overseas markets for live cattle, hides and milk and possibly boxed beef.
Sentiment among pastoralists appears to be in support of changing Australia's policy of not allowing in the live version of diseases not yet in the country, put in place by the Howard Government in 2006 amid foot and mouth outbreaks overseas.
The Northern Territory Cattlemens' Association says it agrees with the need for live lumpy skin virus to be imported for research purposes.
The live virus would go to the Australian Centre for Disease Prevention, run by the CSIRO, in Geelong - one of the highest level containment facilities for animal diseases in the world.
At the time it was built, diseases like foot and mouth and pox were far away from Australia, so the decision was made that the ACDP would not hold live versions of viruses.
Once an animal is injected with a live virus, there is no way to distinguish it from a natural-occurring case. So the minute that occurs for the purposes of research, Australia has to report to the global animal health organisation, the OIE, that it has the disease - which has implications on trade.
That has provided strong reason to prevent live virus imports.
However, with lumpy skin now being just 3000 kilometres off Australian shores in Sumatra, the situation has changed, the deputy secretary of biosecurity and compliance with the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment Andrew Tongue said.
He described the vaccines that have been developed overseas to date for lumpy skin as dodgy and suggested Australia needed to take charge.
"Because they've been poorly manufactured, they have interacted with the disease and new variants of lumpy skin have emerged," Mr Tongue said.
"So we don't want to be going out the world and saying send us your vaccines.
"In our environment, I guarantee that will cause something very bad - the likes of the disease in cattle crossing across to sheep and goats."
Australian scientists working with international colleagues are very concerned about the nature of emerging variants, he said.
"Because we can't study these diseases, we don't know how it is evolving and therefore it's very difficult for us to fight it," Mr Tongue said.
"The conversation must be had, and quickly, with industry about the tolerance for allowing live lumpy skin virus into Australia so we can be better prepared."
It was also desperately needed to support diagnostics, he said.
In order to facilitate fast detection of the disease, all the diagnostic equipment needs to be calibrated against the live virus.
"We can't progress diagnostics at the moment. We can buy some from overseas but this is about the Australian cattle industry," Mr Tongue said.
"The minute we get lumpy skin here, the risk equation changes and then the live vaccine becomes one of our few weapons."
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