Scientists Try to Save Virus-Resistant Horse

WORCESTER, Mass. (CN) – An equine research facility wants the state stopped from euthanizing one of its horses, which is immune to an equine virus similar to AIDS in humans. American Veterinary Medical Frontiers says it has spent years studying Equine Infectious Anemia, a contagious virus that attacks horses’ immune systems and is “a naturally occurring model for the AIDS virus.”

     The organization, which was approved by U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997 as an equine infectious anemia research facility, claims it has identified a strain of horses that have natural immunity to Equine Infectious Anemia, or EIA.
     After conducting biological testing on a horse, Nora, at its farm in Boylston, Mass., the organization discovered an antigen that indicates Nora is naturally immune to EIA, according to the Superior Court complaint.
     American Veterinary Medical Frontiers (AVMF) claims that horses that test positive for EIA under the two accepted diagnostic methods for the disease – the Coggins test and the Enzyme-Linked Immunsorbent Assay test – could be negative for EIA under AVMF’s molecular biological test, and show no clinical symptoms of infection.
     “Nora is an extremely unique animal, particularly valuable to plaintiff’s research,” according to the complaint. “Nora has an EIA background insofar as she was born from horses that have been determined to be positive to the Coggins test. Nora has also had exposure to the other horses that have tested positive according to the Coggins test.”
     Under the restrictive U.S. approach to dealing with cases of EIA, an animal diagnosed with the virus is confined and destroyed. But China has a different policy, and may have a vaccine.
     “An EIA pandemic occurred in China in the 1960s, and scientists in the country brought the disease under control through its vaccination protocol, successfully vaccinating 63 million horses,” according to the complaint.
     Dr. Robert Tashjian, an advocate for the Chinese approach, founded American Veterinary Medical Frontiers to conduct research and education on the treatment and eradication of the disease, rather than destruction of the affected animal, according to the complaint.
     The organization says it tested Nora’s immunity to EIA in 2002 by administering blood from a horse that tested positive for the virus under the Coggins test and that biological testing showed was unable to transmit EIA.
     The incubation period of EIA is 10 to 45 days. Nora has remained free of an EIA-positive diagnosis to date and has not exhibited any symptoms associated with the virus.
     AVMF says that though Nora is incapable of transmitting the virus, it received an order in August to turn Nora over to the animal health division of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) for euthanization.
     The order also directs AVMF to quarantine a horse kept with Nora, to test it for EIA and euthanize it if the test is positive.
     “The MDAR does not recognize the existence of a vaccine, despite the history of vaccination in China and the existence of a Chinese Live Attenuated EIA vaccine,” the complaint states. “Consequently, the MDAR has historically taken a very negative view on the research conducted by the plaintiff.”
     AVMF lost its federally approved status as an EIA research facility in 2009, but it was allowed to keep EIA-positive horses under quarantine and reapply for USDA approval, according to the complaint.
     “Despite the fact that the USDA’s withdrawal of facility approval still entitled the plaintiff to maintain such animals on the property, the MDAR took steps to euthanize all EIA-positive animals remaining at the plaintiff’s farm.”
     AVMF says the state’s latest order follows a suspicious break of quarantine in which the organization’s horses were reported to have escaped the property. The plaintiff says Nora was not affected by the escape, in which a third party opened the gate and lured horses out of containment.
     AVMF seeks damages for animals that were euthanized and an injunction against the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and Michael Cahill, director of the division of animal health for MDAR. It is represented by Christopher Lilly with Lorden, Pastor & Lilly of Harvard, Mass.

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