Lab closures to test BJD control effort

James Nason, 09/01/2013

How the closure of two of the three Government veterinary laboratories in Queensland will affect the State's Bovine Johne’s Disease testing program is coming into sharper focus as the March deadline draws closer.

The Newman Government announced plans last year, prior to the November 2012 detection of BJD on a Central Queensland cattle stud, to close its Toowoomba and Townsville based veterinary laboratories and to centralise testing operations to its Coopers Plains laboratory in Brisbane.

The Government also scrapped previously announced plans by the former Labor Government to build a new $20m laboratory facility at James Cook University in Townsville, maintaining that promise had never been funded.

Since that time the emergence of BJD has placed significant new demand on testing services.  

Serving Biosecurity Queensland staff have voiced concerns that the forthcoming closure of the regional labs in March, and the loss of key scientific and technical staff before that time, will hamper Biosecurity Queensland's ability to keep pace with the large volume of BJD tests now required.

Sources say the resourcing cutbacks could push testing time-frames for BJD well beyond the three to four month period currently expected for each affected property.

If correct, it would pose a serious problem for producers on quarantined properties who are subject to movement restrictions and unable to move stock from rapidly drying paddocks, unless they can negotiate agistment on other quarantined properties or move cattle direct to slaughter.

The Queensland Government insists its expanded Coopers Plains laboratory will be well placed to handle all BJD testing as the regional labs close, and says Government labs in New South Wales and Victoria can provide back-up capacity if required.

A Government spokesperson told Beef Central that testing was under control and said any claims otherwise were inaccurate and served only to create unnecessary alarm and uncertainty for quarantined producers.

Despite those assurances well-placed sources within Biosecurity Queensland continue to speak out about what they describe as serious shortfalls in laboratory testing capacity.

With 125 beef properties across Queensland currently quarantined for BJD by Biosecurity Queensland, and sample collection now underway across many of those properties, demand for testing services is only now beginning to peak.

One serving biosecurity officer told Beef Central this week it was likely that many quarantined properties could remain under movement restrictions for "many months, and some for one to two years", because of the cutbacks to testing capacity at Qld DAFF laboratories.

“With current DAFF culture testing of tissues from autopsied bulls and cows, and faecal testing from either ex-Rockley bulls, or from other stock such as breeding stock exposed to the ex-Rockley bulls, it takes 12 weeks, give or take one to two weeks, to get a culture result for the BJD organism,” the biosecurity officer explained.

“At the Biosecurity Science Lab (BSL) at Coopers Plains, currently there is neither space for the BJD culture work, nor availability of enough trained microbiology technicians to assist the Toowoomba microbiologist (senior scientist) to do the culture work at Coopers Plains.”

The officer, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said large numbers of key staff were leaving the department as a result of the regional lab cutbacks, at a time when BJD testing meant they were most needed.

“The remaining Animal Disease Surveillance Laboratory (in Toowoomba) microbiologist is the sole serving member of ADSL’s professional and technical staff of 14 who has agreed to the transition to BSL when ADSL is closed.

“On current indicated intentions by ADSL staff, all three veterinary pathologists are leaving DAFF, with two going interstate to positions with the Tasmanian and Victorian Agriculture Departments.

“A similar situation exists for the Townsville vet lab – the livestock pathologist has already left on a Voluntary Early Retirement package.

“Only three Towsnville vet lab staff are going to BSL – a principal fish pathologist, a technical officer and a molecular biologist – from a staff of 20.

“At the Townsville lab, there are two highly skilled and experienced microbiologists who could do BJD culture work if accomodation was found by the DAFF minister on JCU campus.

“BQ has the capacity to treble its BJD culture capacity by using its three current labs, instead of closing the Townsville vet lab, and keeping the Toowoomba lab open with a skeleton staff to do BJD culture work until the end of March 2013 only.”

The officer also questioned the Queensland Government’s view that it can rely upon backup from interstate laboratories if required.

“The NSW lab in Sydney, EMAI, and the Victorian lab, Atwood, have limited BJD culture testing capacity," the source said. “Also those interstate labs will give preferential treatment to samples from NSW and Victoria and will be very costly to retain.”

With labs set to close in March, the officer said Queensland Government had less than two weeks to prevent key personnel from being pushed out with Voluntary Early Retirements and not lost at a time when adequate resources where in critical demand.

The cutbacks have also raised questions about the state's ability to handle a future major disease outbreak if required.

“Minister McVeigh and the LNP Government are closing down vital animal biosecurity infrastructure in regional Queensland, which is at the frontline against serious animal diseases such as FMD, and Rabies, which is in Indonesia, and Screworm Fly, which is in PNG.

“This is a shortsighted policy aimed solely at balancing the state budget and reducing debt.” 

At the time of publication the Queensland Government was preparing a more detailed response to the allegations of negative impacts from lab closures which Beef Central will publish when it comes to hand


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