Deferred work, staff pushed beyond capacity and desperate pleas for more staff internal emails reveal the extent of pressure on the national veterinary laboratory brought on by Mycoplasma bovis. David Williams reports.

On a Friday last August, two weeks into the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, the Ministry for Primary Industries issued a press release to try and reassure the public.

Response director Geoff Gwyn said good progress was being made and “extensive and thorough testing” was being done where the disease was present. The ministry’s Animal Health Laboratory, in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt, had processed about 1200 samples to date, he said.

“Our labs (sic) teams are working quickly and thoroughly seven days a week, and we have increased staff numbers to carry out the work.”

That message confused MPI’s director of diagnostics and surveillance services Veronica Herrera, who asked the Animal Health Laboratory manager if they approved that release. On Sunday, two days after Gwyn’s statement was issued, Herrera wrote: “My main concern was that we were talking about not working on Sunday and perhaps only a half day on Sat and then I see this coming.” She adds: “I don’t think seven days a week is sustainable based on our discussion on Friday.”

These emails and others, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, are an important insight into the national veterinary laboratory, which came under huge pressure because of M. bovis. It became a crucial pinch-point for the outbreak, as samples overwhelmed lab staff.

As previously reported, MPI quietly asked for help of epidemiologists and lab staff from Australia, and New Zealand’s call for more M.bovis testing reagents caused a temporary worldwide shortage. These efforts – made harder by low adherence and minimal enforcement of the country’s animal tracing scheme, NAIT – failed to stop the disease’s spread.

In May, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Government and industry would eradicate the disease, culling an estimated 152,000 cattle, at an estimated cost of $886 million.

“Currently we are very exposed to any unexpected event such as another major investigation or staff sickness.” – Animal Health Laboratory manager

On the same day last August as Gwyn’s statement came out, the Animal Health Laboratory’s manager – whose name has been redacted from emails by MPI – told staff they wouldn’t be working that Sunday. There simply weren’t the people to work seven days without compromising staff welfare, she wrote to Herrera. “Currently we are very exposed to any unexpected event such as another major investigation or staff sickness.” The lab boss also notes it wasn’t in a good position to handle a major expansion if more infected properties were found.

At that stage, there were only two infected properties, both of them part of South Canterbury’s Van Leeuwen Dairy Group. By mid-December, the picture had changed markedly. M.bovis had spread to the North Island and a depopulation programme had culled 3500 animals from infected Van Leeuwen farms. Gwyn said the MPI lab had, by mid-December, completed more than 55,000 tests.

Four days before Christmas, the Wallaceville lab boss wrote to Perrera with their concerns. “In the last week we received well over 7000 samples, well beyond our capacity to process and test, and we will be returning in the New Year to a backlog of testing.”

Its old and temporary facilities had reached capacity, the lab boss wrote, and there had been increasing equipment failure. Dedicated laboratory capital funding had already been spent on equipment for the M. bovis response.

Also, the lab boss lamented the lack of “transition work” for the National Biocontainment Laboratory – a new laboratory being built at Wallaceville to replace MPI’s existing high-containment lab. (By April of this year, two-and-a-half years after construction started, it still wasn’t finished. A newsletter said the building envelope was “nearing its final stages” and was close to being weathertight.)

Twelve more staff required

On February 1, the acting laboratory manager, along with three other managers, wrote to Herrera outlining their needs. Other lab work, including surveillance testing, had been deferred because of cattle disease testing. “Each month we receive more than seven times our normal workload,” they wrote.

On top of 14.5 full-time equivalent staff, an additional 14.1 full-time equivalents (including a temporary manager from Australia) were employed to the end of June. The four managers requested approval for a further 12 full-time staff to be employed over two years to support the M. bovis response and catch up on other work.

The positions were a M. bovis manager, two scientists, five senior technicians, a specimen receptionist and three lab support staff.

Four weeks later, Perrera wrote back to say she was meeting with Biosecurity New Zealand head Roger Smith and will mention the need for more resources. Hopes were high. “You might already know this but the animal industries will be putting funding into M. bovis, so this will mean more commitment.”

It’s unclear what commitment, if any, was made.

Changes took time to implement

In her response letter to Newsroom, Herrera says the emails show the rapidly changing nature of the Mycoplasma bovis response, which greatly increased the need for the services of the Animal Health Laboratory (AHL). The Ministry has enacted two measure to ensure the lab is properly equipped, she says.

“Shortly after the Mycoplasma bovis response began in July [last year], additional temporary staff were recruited to provide sufficient resource for the testing regime needed.

“MPI scientists developed a method to deactivate Mycoplasma bovis within diseased tissue, to enable the tissue samples to be safely transported and tested at external laboratories. This mean some of the necessary testing could be outsourced, which allowed additional resource to be used with the AHL.”

Those changes took time to implement, Herrera says, “but have led to the desired outcomes”. “Recruitment of qualified, experienced scientists has been, and continues to be, a priority for MPI going forward, and funding has been made available for this purpose. The requirement of qualified, experienced experts in this area has been difficult, due to the small number of suitably qualified experts and the required lead-in time for them to be recruited, begin their jobs and reach full capacity.”

As of last Friday, there were 55 infected properties. Forty were “active”, mostly in Canterbury (18) and Southland (13), while 15 had restrictions lifted after being depopulated and cleaned. In June, MPI announced M.bovis had been found on a sheep and beef farm near Masterton – the first confirmation in the Wairarapa.

More than 28,000 animals have now been culled, from 30 infected farms. Compensation paid by the Government has reached $13.1 million.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

Leave a comment