RP 'persuaded' to announce Ebola-Reston virus discovery - report

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 21 2008 07:28 PM | Updated as of Dec 22 2008 03:28 AM

International health authorities had to “negotiate” with Philippine officials to publicly announce that a strain of the Ebola virus was found in some dead pigs in the Philippines, this was revealed in a report published in the Web site of The Wall Street Journal (TWSJ)

The TWSJ report gave details on the discovery of the Ebola-Reston virus in some samples from dead pigs sent from the Philippines citing sources from the World Health Organization (WHO), Office International des Epizooties (OIE) or World Organization for Animal Health and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

The TWSJ report said that according to officials of the three international organizations and the Philippines' Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), high rates of sickness and death among livestock were noticed by hog farmers near Manila as early as May.

Philippine authorities in August reportedly sent samples from the dead pigs to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York. The scientists reportedly detected the presence of several diseases, including a devastating pig virus known as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), or blue-ear pig disease.

Weeks later, during a Oct. 30 teleconference, officials of the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture were notified that scientists of the US animal disease center “had further discovered Ebola Reston virus in six of the 28 pig samples sent to the US,” said the TWSJ report.

The report said the Philippine government only announced on Decenber 10 the presence of the Ebola Reston virus. The report said the Philippine government cited “concern for the pork industry and a lack of evidence that humans were in any danger.”

Davinio Catbagan, BAI director, was cited in the TWSJ report to have said that the Philippine government first consulted with people in the swine industry and only later notified the Department of Health. Mr. Catbagan reportedly said authorities were aware of the public-health importance of the recent discovery, but that the available medical literature didn't suggest any threat to humans.

The WHO said it learned of the disease through the UN FAO in late November, said the report.

The TWSJ report said that according to people at the WHO and OIE, Philippine authorities decided to go public only after being pressured by WHO, OIE and FAO.

Dr. Bernard Vallat, OIE director-general, in the TWSJ report was cited to have said that it was "not an easy negotiation" to persuade Philippine authorities to go public with the news.

Vallat reportedly said the pigs were most likely killed by another disease, but that the presence of the Ebola Reston virus in pigs should be investigated to assess the risk to humans.

Immediate mission
International health authorities in response were reported to be preparing an immediate mission to the Philippines after the discovery and also after Philippine authorities asked FAO for help in stopping the spread of Ebola-Reston virus.

The Philippine agriculture department has sent requests to the FAO to test an initial 10,000 swine in two quarantined hog farms in northern Luzon island, Catbagan said in a statement last week.

"We would like to determine the source of the infection," Catbagan said.

Catbagan said a team of experts from the FAO and the WHO would also assist in setting up diagnostic and prevention and communications plans.

The agriculture department said only six of 28 tissue samples from pigs have been found with traces of the Ebola-Reston strain when these were sent for tests at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States in October.

An additional 94 samples collected from pigs in the affected farms in two provinces have been found to be negative for traces of Ebola-Reston virus when tested at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in the Philippines, the statement said.

Philippine authorities have said they have quarantined affected farms, canceled plans for the country's first official exports of pork, and conducted tests on hog farmers and slaughterhouse workers of affected farms.

They said there have been no signs of humans infection in the outbreak. It's unclear whether any infected pigs were sold for consumption. Experts say it could take weeks to determine how the pigs were infected and the threat to humans.

Last Monday, the Philippines announced the voluntary withdrawal of a shipment of 50,000 tons of pork to Singapore after traces of the low pathogenic Ebola-Reston strain were found.

The shipment was to be the country's first-ever pork export.

Genetic mixing vessels
Health authorities said the “Reston strain” has never caused human illness or death so far, unlike the more-deadly strains of Ebola virus, according to the report.

They, however, add that it is too early to rule out a possible threat to humans.

The WHO, in the TWSJ report, said the Philippine discovery is significant since pigs have served as genetic mixing vessels for viruses that pass from animals to humans.

"When a virus jumps species, in this case from monkeys to pigs, we become concerned, particularly as pigs are much closer to humans than monkeys in their ability to harbor viruses," said Peter Cordingley, WHO Western Pacific spokesman, in the report.

The TWSJ report said that the Ebola virus comes in five distinct strains, three of which are associated with the high-fatality outbreaks that first appeared in the Congo in 1976.

The report said that scientists in 1989 discovered what would be known as the Reston strain of the Ebola virus among monkeys imported from the Philippines and kept for research in a lab in Reston, Virginia in the USA. A handful of humans were reportedly infected in that case, but only one person showed any symptoms, and fully recovered.

The reports also said that according to WHO, the Ebola-Reston virus can be identified only by laboratory testing, and anyone eating pork even from healthy pigs should cook the meat thoroughly. Meat from a sick animal should never be eaten, said WHO.

According to the FAO, the Ebola Reston virus is transmitted by air, unlike African strains of the virus which are transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, said the TWSJ report. With a report from Reuters