LONDON-Scientists have destroyed the UK’s laboratory stocks of a virus that once caused devastating cattle losses.

These stocks accounted for most of the world’s lab samples of rinderpest, which were held at The Pirbright Institute in Surrey.

Rinderpest and the deadly smallpox virus are the only diseases to have been eradicated from the face of the Earth. Dr Carrie Batten, from The Pirbright Institute, described the moment as “the end of an era”.

“Rinderpest was devastating and by removing the stocks that are held globally you are essentially reducing the risk dramatically,” she said.

Rinderpest devastated cattle in Africa during the 1890s. Millions of people died from starvation.

Dr Michael Baron, honorary fellow at the institute, said the end of rinderpest would mark the beginning of a new war on other diseases.

“The success we have achieved with rinderpest has been one of the main drivers for people saying we can do this with other animal diseases and other human diseases such as polio, mumps and measles. These diseases are eradicable and this should be done,” he explained.

The rinderpest virus is responsible for one of the worst catastrophes in history. During an outbreak in the 1890s, it killed between 80% and 90% of cattle in eastern and southern Africa. This caused mass starvation in the region.

Millions of people died as a result. In Ethiopia alone, one-third of the human population was wiped out. The toll in lives was on a scale matched only by the Black Death in Europe.

A vaccination campaign eventually brought the disease under control until it was declared to have been eradicated in the wild in 2011.