(NEWS10) — A new vaccine could save the lives of rabbits from a fatal disease. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2) is a highly contagious and fatal disease of domestic and wild rabbits, and it’s spreading across the United States.

Medgene Labs, a vaccine services provider located in South Dakota, was granted emergency use authorization for its experimental RHDV2 vaccine by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in September. The vaccine is currently available to be distributed in 44 states.

Since February 2020, the USDA said the disease has spread across multiple states including New York, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Texas. A case of RHDV2 was found in a rabbit in Montgomery County back in December 2021. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets said there have been no additional cases reported in the state since then.

According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the case identified in December appears to be an isolated incident and limited to one household. However, out of an abundance of caution, rabbit owners are encouraged to ensure proper health and sanitary measures to prevent the disease.

Symptoms of RHDV2 in rabbits include fever, lethargy, hemorrhage, seizures, and sudden death. Rabbits typically show signs one to three days after being infected.

The Medgene vaccine is an inactivated recombinant subunit vaccine that builds immunity to RHDV2 specific antigenic proteins in the rabbit. The vaccine is administered in two doses, with the second booster dose being delivered 21 days after the initial dose.

Medgene said it needs to work with each state on its requirements for distribution and reporting become the vaccine can be shipped there. The vaccine is currently unavailable in:

  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont

A couple of studies have been performed to assess the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety. The effectiveness study found a 69% mortality rate in the placebo group of rabbits and a 0% mortality rate in those that were vaccinated. In the safety study, out of the 105 fully-vaccinated rabbits observed, two rabbits had minor post-injection swelling at the site the vaccine was administered, but the swelling was resolved within 48 hours.

The vaccine can be given to rabbits at four weeks old, said Medgene. Side effects from the vaccine include swelling at the injection site, developing a slight temporary fever, or lethargy for a day or two.

According to Medgene, the vaccine should be fully protective 14 days after the second dose. At that point, rabbits should not contract the virus or infect other rabbits.

The disease was first found in the United States in 2018. The first cluster of cases in New York was found in New York City in March 2020. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets said the virus was quickly identified, isolated, and eliminated in that case.

RHDV2 does not affect humans or other animals. It can survive in the environment for weeks or longer and can be spread through feed, bedding, equipment, and other contaminated materials such as shoes and clothing.

Recommendations for rabbit owners:

  • Do not allow other pets or wild rabbits to have contact with your rabbits or enter your home.
  • Do not allow visitors to enter rabbit areas or handle pet rabbits without protective clothing (including coveralls, shoe covers, hair covering, and gloves).
  • Always wash hands before entering your rabbit area, after removing protective clothing, and before leaving the rabbit area.
  • Do not introduce new rabbits from unknown or untrusted sources.
  • Keep new rabbits separated from your existing rabbits for at least 30 days. Use separate equipment for new or sick rabbits to avoid spreading disease.
  • Sanitize all equipment and cages moved on or off-premises before they are returned.
  • Establish a working relationship with a veterinarian to review biosecurity practices.

Veterinarians can purchase the vaccine by contacting Medgene Labs at (605) 697-2600 or info@medgenelabs.com.