New Delhi, July 7: A herd of cattle from Australia has been in quarantine in Chennai for the past 15 months, entangled in a bilateral deadlock over a virus that causes abortions.
Indian scientists say Australian livestock exporters violated health protocol by sending to India cattle infected with the bovine viral diarrhoea virus that causes abortions, stillbirths and diarrhoea in livestock.
At least 110 animals from a herd of 201, bound for Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, are infected with the virus, the scientists said. India has rejected the cattle, fearing the virus may spread into native livestock.
However, Australian authorities have challenged India’s findings and do not want the animals back. A panel set up by the animal husbandry department here has said the animals should be slaughtered if they cannot be deported.
The fate of the cattle rests with the Supreme Court, with a Chennai animal rights group demanding freedom for uninfected animals. But scientists caution that even animals not showing evidence of infection may be carrying the virus.
An Australian high commission spokesperson in New Delhi said the export did not involve the government as it was a deal involving a private organisation.
“The animals did meet India’s import requirements. And independent testing by an international laboratory confirmed Australian results that the animals were free of infection,” the spokesperson said.
But scientists at the high-security Animal Disease Laboratory, Bhopal say they collected blood samples within 24 hours of the herd being flown into Chennai in April 2002, and detected the virus in several animals.
The tests also revealed two other infections in some animals - infectious bovine rhinotracheitis that causes pneumonia, drop in milk yields and abortions, and malignant catarrhal fever that causes high fever and eye problems. These are livestock viruses that pose no threat to humans.
“In the interests of the nation, we should not allow these animals into the country,” said Hare Krishna Pradhan, director of the Bhopal lab that screens imported animals for exotic diseases. The herd includes bulls intended for artificial insemination and breeding. “The virus is transmitted through semen and may spread among local cows,” said Pradhan.
A senior animal husbandry official said India had stipulated that animals should be picked from herds free of infection. When tested in Australia before export, 19 of the 220 animals ordered were found infected by Australian authorities. They were removed and only 201 animals were sent to India. “The infection in 19 animals should have made it clear that the cattle came from infected herds,” he said.
The laboratory detected antibodies to the virus, indicating that the cattle had been exposed to the virus, as well as genetic fingerprints of the virus in the animals. Indian officials say the independent international laboratory had also detected antibodies to the virus in the samples.
“We offered to repeat our tests in the presence of Australian scientists, either here or in Australia, but they have not responded,” Pradhan said.
Although the herd remains isolated at a quarantine facility in Chennai, the number of animals with the virus has increased in the last 15 months, officials said.
Scientists say many exotic diseases of cattle, horses, pigs and poultry have been introduced into India because of inadequate screening.
The blue tongue virus, which causes high fever, weight-loss and a “blue tongue”, arrived in the 1970s through infected sheep, also from Australia. It has since spread to seven states in India, affecting sheep and cattle.
Last year, the government ordered the slaughter of 80 pigeons from Saudi Arabia carrying the avian influenza virus and 150 rabbits from Germany infected with a haemorrhagic fever virus.
The Australian company that sent the virus-infected herd has supplied goats to Kerala, cattle to Punjab and pigs to Mizoram in the past.
Until the Bhopal lab became operational three years ago, imported animals were placed in quarantine for 28 days and declared infection-free if they showed no symptoms.