The UK will be better protected against animal diseases like avian flu and foot and mouth thanks to a global network of scientific research to be launched by Defra this week.
Increasingly globalised movements of animals, people and food have raised the risk of animal diseases spreading to the UK, which could have serious economic, environmental and health consequences.
Defra is leading an international network, funded by the EU, linking thousands of scientists across the world. It will allow them to exchange research, establish common goals and collaborate on developing future controls. It will also underpin early warning systems by identifying what emerging diseases are being picked up abroad.
Ahead of the network’s launch on Wednesday, Agriculture and Food Minister Jim Paice said:
“In this modern age of globalised trade and travel the risk of animal disease entering the UK is greater than ever.
“We already have comprehensive international surveillance and outbreak plans, but we must prepare for the challenges in 5, 10 and 15 years’ time.
“Countries acting on their own just don’t have the resources to research every disease, all of the time, so sharing resources like this will get us maximum protection and value for money.”
The €1million EU-funded network will include Canada, USA, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and the UK. It will be divided into three regions - the Americas, Asia and Australasia, and Europe - and surrounding countries are expected to feed in. It is hoped an Africa region will follow.
Examples of major diseases of concern are: Avian Influenza; new strains of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRSV) which are circulating in China; and African Swine Fever, which has spread from Africa to Russia.
The network, which also involves the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), will also help to develop control measures for current problems such as TB- or drug- resistant parasites.
It is estimated that 75 per cent of emerging animal diseases can be transmitted to humans, often from wildlife via livestock. The network will allow information to be shared more quickly on conditions that affect humans such as nipah virus infection. An outbreak of this disease in people in Malaysia has been traced back to pigs catching the virus from the droppings of bats in palm trees.
The global network will also help improve the health and productivity of animals through hastening the development of improved control methods for existing diseases in the UK. This is crucial to meet the challenges of increasing food production and reducing the impact of livestock on the climate.
UK Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens said:
“Global coordination of our animal disease research efforts will help ensure that new technologies, such as diagnostic tools, vaccines and new treatments, are identified and put to work as quickly as possible to make a real difference to the health, welfare and productivity of livestock.”
Defra is already leading on a similar EU network where member states work towards a common research agenda and share funding instead of acting unilaterally. So far it has initiated 12 research projects worth €21million - €3.9million of which was contributed by the UK.
One project is on Marek’s Disease, a major threat to the global poultry industry. Chickens are vaccinated to prevent them developing symptoms, but they remain persistently infected so the virus is evolving to become more virulent, prompting the need for a new vaccine every 10 to 20 years. There are currently three groups working on this disease across Europe, but the global network will combine this expertise with groups in the US, China and Australia to pool knowledge.
The UK cattle industry is establishing a similar network with counterparts across Europe to avoid duplication of industry-funded research, and is working to link up with the Defra-led network.
The Defra-led network will also link up with the pharmaceutical industry to identify what products they would be prepared to make so that scientists can base research around a solid end product.