In 2011, after decades of intense vaccination campaigns, the World Organization for Animal Health and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared the world free from rinderpest.1 After smallpox, it was only the second disease to be eradicated on a global scale. For centuries, rinderpest – or cattle plague – ravaged cattle herds across the globe.2 Caused by morbillivirus closely related to that responsible for measles in humans, the disease was highly infectious and extremely lethal. During epidemic outbreaks, rinderpest often killed 90 percent or more of the large cattle – mostly cows – in the affected regions, thus causing immense animal suffering and economic disaster for communities dependent on cattle for their livelihood.
In The Rinderpest Campaigns, Amanda Kay McVety, Professor of History at Miami University, provides a meticulous reconstruction of the international efforts that led to global eradication. In six chapters, the book details how, during the twentieth century, researchers across the globe developed new vaccines that helped to control and eventually eradicate the disease.
To tell this story, McVety takes the reader on a long and fascinating, though sometimes a bit overly detailed, journey through the different stages and arenas of rinderpest vaccine research. There were significant milestones on this scientific odyssey: Robert Koch’s immunological experiments in South Africa in the late nineteenth century; the creation of the first „inactivated“ vaccines by Kakizaki (Japan) and Kelser (Philippines) in the 1910s and 1920s; the development of more potent „attenuated“ vaccines by researchers in India, Kenya, Canada and China in the 1930s and 1940s, which involved growing or „passaging“ the virus in other living organisms (goats, eggs and rabbits); the development of a tissue culture-based vaccine (TCRV) in the 1960s; and a „thermostable“ vaccine (ThermoVax) in the late 1980s that did not need constant refrigeration.
McVety combines this story of vaccine research with a broader argument about the agency of nonhuman actors. Vaccines, she claims, were not merely research objects, but also “affected what humans thought they could do, what they wanted to do, and what they tried to do” (p. 9). Accordingly, each major step in vaccine development conditioned national and international rinderpest control programs: inactivated vaccines made governments shift from isolation and sanitation measures to mass vaccination schemes as the main measure of rinderpest prevention, and attenuated vaccines made eradication conceivable and, with TCRV and ThermoVax, feasible.
However, the book is much more (and sometimes less) than a straightforward story about vaccine research and vaccination campaigns. McVety embeds the fight against rinderpest in the broader histories of scientific internationalism, US foreign policy and global development. Thus, The Rinderpest Campaigns is not only a contribution to the history of veterinary science, but also, and perhaps even predominantly, to the field of international history.
The book particularly focuses on the 1940s and 1950s (Chapters 2 to 5), when the Second World War and the beginnings of the Cold War fuelled research into both „defensive“ vaccines and „offensive“ uses of rinderpest as biological weapons by military units in the US and Canada, the UK, Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union (Chapters 2 and 5). In the aftermath of the Second World War, rinderpest control became part of UN agencies’ efforts to fight hunger and promote agricultural development, partly as a means to secure peace. McVety analyses how, between 1945 and 1947, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration played a crucial role in rehabilitating China’s anti-rinderpest campaigns (Chapter 3), and how, subsequently, the FAO supported rinderpest vaccination campaigns across Asia and East Africa (Chapter 4). Partly due to budgetary constraints, both agencies’ efforts tended to be limited to technical assistance: they dispatched virus strains, vaccines and experts to help national governments set up laboratories for vaccine production and to conceive eradication schemes.
McVety highlights the contradictory effects of these mid-century rinderpest campaigns. While greatly reducing the number and dimension of disease outbreaks in most parts of the world, they turned global eradication into a less pressing issue for international agencies like the FAO. At the same time, however, they revealed the bureaucratic machineries and international collaboration schemes that, in addition to the vaccines, would be needed for eradication. Spurred by the WHO announcement of smallpox eradication and the outbreak of the Second Great African Rinderpest Panzootic in the early 1980s, the FAO and OIE (Office International des Épizooties, now the World Organization for Animal Health) would capitalize on these earlier experiences to eventually conceive and coordinate programmes that would achieve global eradication through national action, regional collaboration and global funding.
Another main argument of the book suggests that international collaboration had not always been a given. While conscious actions of scientific internationalism had resulted in the creation of the OIE and the global circulation of rinderpest viruses and vaccines during the interwar years, research in the 1940s and 1950s got caught up in the tensions of the Second World War, the Cold War and global decolonization. McVety shows how both the UNRRA and FAO, though largely funded by the US, also stood in competition with US national development efforts such as the Marshal Plan and Point Four programme that the US could restrict to political allies. At the same time, colonial powers in Africa tried to resist FAO interference by creating a special branch for veterinary health within „their“ CCTA (Commission for Technical Cooperation in Africa south of the Sahara). Here, McVety’s study contributes to the emerging historiography on late colonial resistance against UN agencies.3
McVety’s book naturally does not cover all aspects of the eradication story. Because of the top-down approach focusing on political elites, international institutions and high-level scientists, we learn little about the practical sides of the vaccination campaigns – that is, the field work of vaccinators (their routines, difficulties etc.) and the (re)actions and beliefs of livestock owners to both rinderpest and the vaccination campaigns. Only at the very end does McVety refer to the crucial role that community-based animal health workers played in eventually eradicating the disease in the 1990s and 2000s, as they proved more successful than (inter)national teams in vaccinating and monitoring their cattle herds (pp. 235–236; 240–242).
A second major caveat concerns the colonial context. Although McVety emphasizes that cattle plague in the twentieth century became increasingly confined to colonial spaces in Africa and Asia – where the disease had often only been introduced through imperial conquest – (pp. 6–7) most of these spaces only enter the story after decolonization. Notable exceptions are British India and Kenya and the US Philippines, but French colonies in Africa and Asia are completely written out of the story, despite the role of the Instituts Pasteur and the veterinary services in French West Africa and Indochina in developing and testing vaccines and setting up mass vaccination campaigns.4 One wonders whether they were disconnected from the international vaccine networks or whether their absence from this book results from the exclusively Anglophone literature and archives that McVety has used. Finally, animal historians and historians of science will find that the concept of nonhuman agency, which McVety uses to emphasize the impact of vaccines on human actions, remains fairly undertheorized in this book.5
The Rinderpest Campaigns is not – nor does it claim to be – the definitive history of rinderpest control and eradication. Yet it is a deeply researched, well-told and compelling book about how the virus and its vaccines got caught up in the powerful machineries of national security, international cooperation and global development during the long twentieth century.
1 Peter Roeder / Jeffrey Mariner / Richard Kock, Rinderpest. The Veterinary Perspective on Eradication, in: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368 (2013), online http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2012.0139 (17.12.2019).
2 For an overview, see C.A. Spinage, Cattle Plague. A History, New York 2003.
3 See, for instance, Jessica Lynn Pearson, The Colonial Politics of Global Health. France and the United Nations in Postwar Africa, Cambridge, Mass. 2018.
4 See, for instance, the books by French protagonists Georges Curasson, La Peste bovine, Paris 1932, esp. pp. 234–244, and Henri Jacotot, La peste bovine en Indochine. Exposition coloniale internationale, Paris 1931.
5 For a different take on disease, medicine and nonhuman agency, see, for instance, Rohan Deb Roy, Malarial Subjects. Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909, Cambridge 2017.