SRINAGAR: While confusion, and politics, prevails over the source of the novel coronavirus, 18 years ago a veterinary researcher here had to battle hard with the authorities to make them accept that a new virus had entered India and was killing bovine animals.
Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF), a serious, often fatal disease that still affects cows and buffaloes, was unknown in India till it was first detected in 2002 in Kashmir. But for two years Indian authorities and scientists were not ready to accept that this virus had intruded into Indian territory, even after scientific evidence was presented to them.
Indian authorities also forbade the scientist who discovered the virus from going public about his discovery, and asked for an explanation when his study was published in a British scientific journal.
The discovery that a new virus was causing MCF in cows in Kashmir was made by Professor Shakeel Ahmad Wani, a veterinary microbiologist and researcher. Prof Wani, who made it to the post of Director of Education at SKUAST (university), besides being Dean at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences & Animal Husbandry, SKUAST-Kashmir, Shuhama, where he worked on the virus, recounts how in July 2002 he was guided by one of the local vets to a home in Umerhair in suburban Srinagar, where a cow was suffering from strange symptoms never seen before in Kashmir.
Wani said that one of the symptoms that raised suspicion about it being MCF was the opaqueness of both retinas in the eyes of this cow.
However, proving the presence of an unknown virus in the local laboratories was a tough job. Prof Wani managed to contact US-based scientist Dr Hong Li, who remains an authority on this MCF virus, and Dr Li guided Wani to the High Security Animal Disease Laboratory in Bhopal.
“In Bhopal, I initially found great support not only in getting my results verified by serological tests, but also in a special test of sequencing that is the ultimate confirmation of this virus,” Prof Wani told Kashmir Reader.
Surprisingly for Wani, some of the later samples sent to the Bhopal lab for tests were not given any attention. This happened after Wani began to speak of publishing the discovery of this virus, which had never before been detected in India.
“The help from some of my fraternity to get the few remaining tests done here helped me put forth the fact that the virus was now present in our region,” Prof Wani said.
The virus remains a significant threat to animal husbandry, with summers being its more active season. “The fatality is almost 50 percent and it is our valuable cows and buffaloes that we lose to this virus,” Prof Wani said.
It was only in July 2004 that the world came to know about the presence of this virus in India, after the British journal The Veterinary Record in its August 21 issue published the study by Dr Wani and his team, which included MA Bhat, I Samanta, BA Buchoo, SM Ishaq, F Pandit, GUD Shah, and AS Buchh.
The journal article, however, did not please Indian authorities. The Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Dairying immediately sought an explanation from Wani, asserting that there was no presence of such a virus in the whole of India.
But given the evidence reached through molecular sequencing, Indian officials had to eat humble pie and later accept the fact that the virus did indeed exist in India.
Prof Wani said that the virus is now well known for MCF outbreaks in bovine animals in India. In Kashmir, it is reported mostly in summers, but treatment cures most of the animals.
According to him, the MCF viruses are likely to be carried by sheep in Jammu and Kashmir even though in Africa the wildebeest is the carrier. The MCF virus is highly adapted to its usual host, and does not normally cause disease to the host species, but can cause fatal infections if transmitted to susceptible bovine animals.
Prof Wani recommends that proper segregation of sheep and cows is vital for limiting the spread of this disease, as once spread it is difficult to control.
What made his study unique, Prof Wani says, was the fact that it was the confirmation test at the Bhopal laboratory that helped him publish the findings, while Indian authorities only confirmed the presence of this strain two years later, with tests from a different laboratory.
Asked about the possible reasons why the Ministry of Animal Husbandry denied presence of the virus, Prof Wani said that it could have been due to concerns that information about the virus would hit exports of bovine produce from India.
Detecting viral disease carriers can be highly helpful in stopping a catastrophe such as a pandemic, Prof Wani says, as major viral outbreaks among animals frequently occur in various countries.
About the present Covid-19 pandemic, he says, “Human well being is only secured if we look at health aspects of humans, animals and plants in unison. Medical professions, veterinarians, and those looking after plant health should work with an inter-disciplinary approach.”
Prof Wani lamented the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic could have been effectively managed if the veterinarians were well equipped to contain the disease flow at the zoonotic level.