As if the world wasn’t plague-stricken enough, a deadly new virus that’s more contagious than the coronavirus is sweeping across the US, killing thousands of both domestic and wild rabbits in the Southwest.
“We refer to it as ‘bunny Ebola,’ ” Texas veterinarian Dr. Amanda Jones tells the Cut of the leporine affliction, whose official name is rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV2). And while the disease is not related to Ebola — an ailment marked by hemorrhaging — it does cause lesions in rabbits’ organs and tissues, which results in internal bleeding and death. Even more peculiar, many of the affected creatures’ noses started bleeding post-mortem.
“We still have no idea where it originated,” Ralph Zimmerman, New Mexico state veterinarian, tells the Cut. However, since April, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has confirmed RHDV2 cases in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Texas and New Mexico. Nearly 500 bunnies in New Mexico were infected between March and June alone.
RHDV2 — which spreads through blood, feces and urine — is more contagious and deadlier than the coronavirus, with a 90% mortality rate recorded in the current outbreak, reports the Cut. Zimmerman recounts one instance where someone lost 200 rabbits to the disease in one weekend.
In a similar incident in New York City, the rabbit-ravaging virus culled more than a dozen bunnies at Manhattan’s Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine.
“We tried to do CPR, but these rabbits were dead within minutes,” says veterinarian Lorelei D’Avolio of bunny Ebola’s horrific effects. “They would convulse, scream horribly and die.”
And while the RHDV2 doesn’t infect people, cats or dogs, it does cling to articles of clothing and fur. So a person or a pet can easily bring it home and help facilitate the spread of the virus. Not only that, but the hardy disease can live on surfaces for 3½ months at room temperature and can survive freezing, as well as temperatures up to 122 degrees for at least an hour.
The current iteration of RHDV2 only hit the US recently, cropping up among pet rabbits in Ohio in 2018, before later surfacing in Washington state in the summer of 2019 and New York City just this past February. Worldwide, versions of the virus have been observed in France, Australia and Canada with the first known case being reported in China in 1984.
However, the current epidemic is particularly alarming because this is the first time the virus has jumped from domesticated animals to wild rabbits, pikas and hares. “To hear it’s burning through the wild rabbit populations, that, of course, furthers our concerns that much more,” Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association, tells VIN News.
Currently, there is no locally available cure for the disease. The USDA is developing a vaccine; however, it likely won’t be ready before the end of the year. In the interim, veterinarians are forced to rely on unlicensed European imports that can take over a month to arrive, reports Business Insider.
“This is a new problem that’s here to stay,” says Jones.