Protecting UK Livestock From The Threat Of Viral Disease

The successes in disease control and future challenges were discussed at a meeting organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Institute for Animal Health (IAH) in London on 17 March, writes Jackie Linden, Senior Editor of TheCattleSite.
calendar icon 1 April 2011
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"This is the age of bioscience," said Professor David Paton, Acting Director of IAH, in his welcome address to the meeting. He continued that this offers great opportunities for UK science, while stressing the importance of translating scientific results into veterinary solutions.

Viral diseases are the main focus of work of the IAH because of the enormous damage they can do to productivity, trade, food security, welfare and human health, he said. Contributing factors include the growth in the human population and globalisation as well as climate change, which raises the risk of exotic diseases in the UK.

Based in Compton and Pirbright, the IAH is a research institute committed to underpinning science, Professor Paton said. Part of the BBSRC, it aims to offer early warning of disease, and emergency response, providing informed decisions, better tools (in terms of diagnosis and vaccines) and training to scientists both in the UK and overseas.

"This is the age of bioscience"

In 2009, the IAH introduced a new strategy, focusing on viral diseases because they were assessed to present the greatest threat to poultry and livestock.

As well as a national and international Reference Laboratory, IAH has specialist facilities and collections, including inbred lines of cattle, pigs and chickens.

IAH takes a holistic approach, said Professor Paton, through strategic partnerships with the commercial sector and international agencies.

Funding is mainly from BBSRC and Defra to develop fundamental research to produce practical solutions as new vaccines and diagnostic techniques.

In closing, Professor Paton announced that the new Director of IAH is to be Professor John Fazakerley, who is currently at the Roslin Institute. He will start his new responsibilities at IAH in mid-2011.

Science into Practice: Lesson Learned from Success

"The eradication of rinderpest was a massive achievement"

"There have been two important success stories where IAH stood at the centre of the wheel," said Dr Chris Oura, head of the Non-Vesicular Research Laboratory of IAH. These successes involved the eradication of bluetongue from the UK and rinderpest worldwide.

Rinderpest was the most devastating disease of cattle in history, he said, as it killed almost all the cattle in the Horn of Africa in the 19th Century.

The eradication of rinderpest was a massive achievement, said De Oura. The first vaccine was developed in the 1960s and a thermostable form was introduced in 1990s, when the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme was set up. The last confirmed case of rinderpest was in 2001 and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is expected to announce the global eradication of the disease later this year.

Dr Oura identified the keys to this success as the development of good and long-lasting vaccines, sensitive and specific diagnosis tests and a strong international will and funding.

Turning his attention to bluetongue, Dr Oura said that the virus first arrived in Belgium and the Netherlands in May 2006, expanding across Europe the following year.

Of the 24 stereotypes of the virus, it was serotype 8 that was responsible and it affected sheep and cattle in the UK and much of Europe. The virus is transmitted by midges and the entomology facilities at IAH proved to be vital to the understanding of virus transmission, Dr Oura said.

IAH also contributed to the eradication of bluetongue by carrying out midge surveillance in the UK and collaborating with the Meteorological office with the Merial organisation for vaccine development.

Dr Oura stressed that IAH's education of UK farmers was vital so that they were able to assess the risks and decide whether to vaccinate. Defra played an important role too by ensuring the timely availability of adequate supplies of vaccine.

There has been no bluetongue in the UK since 2007 and it has also been eradicated from northern and western Europe. In answer to a question, Dr Oura warned of the need for constant vigilance as there is a risk the disease could return in this or future years if farmers in high-risk areas become complacent and cease vaccinating their stock.

Engaging with Farmers

"Communication is key"

Dairy farmer and vice president of the National Farmers Union, Gwyn Jones, stressed that engagement with the farming community is a vital stage for disease solutions.

Farmers have always been concerned with the productivity and health of their animals, he said, but today's challenges include the need to work in harmony with the environment.

Mr Jones went on to explain the importance of the '7 Ps' for success. These include the need for solutions that are practical. Citing the bluetongue eradication programme as a good example, he said farmers were provided, by IAH and other organisations, with the right information to allow them to carry out their own risk assessment over the need to vaccinate their stock.

Getting the message right is vital, he said. Information must be practical, accurate and honest.

"Communication is key," concluded Mr Jones.

Partnerships: IAH and Roslin Institute

In a session on the importance of partnerships in the control of viral diseases, Professor Ivor Morrison of the Roslin Institute outlined his institution's partnership with IAH. Roslin Institute itself is now embedded within the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine of the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Morrison explained how Roslin's four research divisions – genetics/genomics, developmental biology, neuropathogenesis, and infection & immunity – complement the strengths of IAH.

Current and future joint activities include those on fighting vector-borne viral diseases, interactions between innate and adaptive immune responses and the genetic resistance of birds to viral infections.

He cited the example of recent work at the Roslin Institute to engineer resistance to disease in poultry. This was an experimental but useful tool, Professor Morrison said, which resulted in chickens expressing an inhibitor of the avian flu virus. The birds were still susceptible to infection but they transmitted far fewer viruses to other birds, he concluded.

Partnerships: IAH and Jenner Institute

"Influenzas represent examples of synergies between human and veterinary medicine"

Professor Adrian Hill of the Jenner Institute opened his presentation by explaining that his Institute represents a partnership between IAH and the University of Oxford, allowing the latest medical advances to be harvested for veterinary vaccinology.

Its aims are to develop innovative vaccines by partnering with industry and to drive the 'One World, One Health' agenda by linking human and animal disease control.

The 25 principal investigators and more than 300 researchers of the Jenner Institute are working to develop new vaccines against diseases in both humans and animals. In the latter group are foot and mouth disease, bluetongue, bovine respiratory syncitial virus, avian flu, swine flu, peste des petits ruminants, African swine fever and African horse sickness.

Influenzas represent examples of synergies between human and veterinary medicine, added Professor Hill. He explained that his institute has achieved some success in seeking new cross-strain influenza vaccines, which are based on the mere consistent internal virus antigens.

Countering Threats to the Poultry Industry

"Viral diseases represent a major obstacle to sustainable development"

"Poultry are essential in securing global food security," said Professor Venugopal Nair, Head of the IAH Avian Infections Diseases Programme. He explained that modern intensive poultry production is extremely efficient and offers the lowest carbon footprint of all animal production, while village poultry offer a vital pathway out of poverty.

For both ends of production, viral diseases represent a major obstacle to sustainable development, he said, citing as examples Marek's disease, Newcastle disease, avian flu and the newly emerged myeloid leukosis. The complex worldwide trade in poultry products and risks associated with migrating wild birds exacerbate the problems.

However, earlier successes, such as vaccine development against Marek's disease and coccidiosis, have been significant triumphs, Professor Nair said.

Advances in technology such as genome sequencing and understanding of embryo development, how virus and host genes interact and resistance genes are helping the IAH avian disease programme. They have been used to develop new solutions as well as to train the next generation of UK and international scientists to make the future of the global poultry industry more sustainable, concluded Professor Nair.

Poultry Industry Perspective

"Some profound improvements in health of breeding stock have passed through the generations"

Highlighting the importance of the EW Group, its Director for Sales and Technology, Dr Jim McKay said: "We breed half the world's egg-laying chicken, more than half of the turkeys and one-third of the salmon."

The company produces genetic improvements by crossing through the chain, he said, "as genes and health go together".

Dr McKay went on to explain that genetic changes in Aviagen's Pedigree Flocks are multiplied through the breeding pyramid to trillions of eggs and billions of broilers.

The company has been in a long-term collaboration with IAH since the 1970s to eliminate Marek's disease and, more recently, on avian leukosis virus as well as bacterial diseases such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Clostridium.

"Some profound improvements in health of breeding stock have passed through the generations," he said. These have brought benefits in terms of animal health, welfare and productivity as well as the safety and security of food supply.

Dr McKay explained that the industry seeks research partners that are centres of excellence with both national and international engagement demonstrating vigilance and responsiveness.

For the future, his company looks forward to continuing collaboration with IAH as poultry health and genetics move closer to bring progress in increasing disease resistance, added Dr McKay.

Preparing for Emerging Threats

"A lesson learned from the UK's FMD outbreak in 2001 was the importance of reliable and rapid detection methods"

Professor Paton returned to the platform to discuss trans-boundary diseases, which he characterised as those that speed rapidly from reservoirs in developing countries; they emerge (or re-emerge) periodically and have the potential to cause huge losses, both directly and indirectly. These diseases need to be controlled both at home and at source, he added.

In deciding which of these diseases to prepare for, Professor Paton said some are obvious but there is a need to maintain flexibility to respond to changing situations. He cited the examples of African swine fever, foot and mouth disease, peste des petits ruminants, bluetongue 8 and African horse sickness.

For insect-borne diseases, there are difficulties in prioritisation as the vectors – such as ticks and mosquitoes – may only begin to appear in Europe as the result of climate change.

IAH can help tackle these challenges by vaccine development where current vaccines are either ineffective or unavailable, e.g. FMD, or by developing outbreak models to help in the choice of control measure(s). A lesson learned from the UK's FMD outbreak in 2001 was the importance of reliable and rapid detection methods for both laboratory and field use.

Professor Paton continued that virus characterisation can provide information on sources of infection and possible 'missing links'. Finally, it is necessary to substantiate disease eradication.

Industry Perspective: Translating Research into Products

"This type of co-operation is a model for preparedness for other emerging diseases because we can't do it alone"

Intervet Schering-Plough Animal Health (ISPAH) has enjoyed a 30-year collaboration with IAH, according to Dr Paul van Aarle, director of international sales for ISPAH. The collaboration has covered FMD, bluetongue and, for poultry, recombinant vaccines against infectious bronchitis as well as a long-standing co-operation on poultry virology.

Dr van Aarle identified the critical factors for success as mutual trust, complementary expertise, transparency, understanding the other partner's needs, overcoming hurdles (intellectual property, regulatory and financial) and a contract that protects both parties' interests while allowing some flexibility.

Looking to the future, he said that commercial animal health companies find preparing for emerging diseases challenging. However, collaboration with institutions like IAH can help with both general and specific preparedness. Taking FMD as an example, discussion with the World Reference Laboratory (WRL) at Pirbright helped priorities strain development and the exchange of expertise helped the WRL provide independent advise to FMD-infected and FMD-free countries.

Dr van Aarle concluded: "This type of co-operation is a model for preparedness for other emerging diseases because we can't do it alone."

Partnerships for Emergency Response Capability

"Our science is applied in both emergency response as well as working together for future challenges"

"The management of emergency response is the ultimate test of the applicability of science we have heard about today," said Head of Laboratories Agency, Paul Townsend.

He explained that they UK Animal Disease Emergency Response Committee puts in place contingency plans for laboratory capability and capacity. Among the lessons learned from the FMD outbreak in 2001 were the need to match field and laboratory capacities for future eventualities.

The Committee carries out disease simulations once annually and meets every six months with the IAH, VLA, Defra and the devolved governments.

Citing the response to FMD as an example, Mr Townsend explained that IAH Pirbright has a capacity for up to 8,000 tests per week, while VLA provides so-called 'surge capacity' of up to 120,000 tests per week using robotic methods.

"Our science is applied in both emergency response – the ultimate test of preparedness and efficiency – as well as working together to develop this for future challenges," concluded Mr Townsend.


Defra's Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, was tasked with summarising the presentations. He stressed the importance of maintaining efforts on production diseases as well as more exotic ones.

IAH contributes by focusing on the spectrum of research, while bridging the gap to market, he said. Knowledge transfer is a vital final step, he said.

Surveillance is an important branch of the evidence to pick up and deal with emerging diseases, said Mr Gibbens.

Sharing was a recurrent these – in terms of joint responsibility of government, industry and farmers; partnerships for science and development, and 'One World, One Health', which offers synergies between human and veterinary medicine.

International collaboration is critical, said Mr Gibbens, also because it helps protect the UK industry, which is dependent on trade. Success depends on early detection.

Funding is becoming harder to obtain in these testing economic times, he added, so it is important to identify the issues that potential funders care about as well as to make the best of available resources.

From the final session, Mr Gibbens identified the need for partnerships to be in place before the disease challenge emerges.

Offering his viewpoint on the event, Professor Joe Brownlie of the Royal Veterinary College and Chair of the IAH Trustee Board, sees the biggest threat as newly emerging diseases. Many of these are from animals and are caused by viruses, hence the IAH's priorities, he said.

It is important that veterinary disease research remains in the vanguard of the battle against new and emerging diseases. However, Professor Brownlie said there is a need to break down further the 'silos' of human and veterinary medicine to achieve the 'One World, One Health' goals.

The IAH has a wide brief in disease control, he said, as globalisation has increased the risks to food security. "Veterinary disease is at the centre of this agenda," said Professor Brownlie, "and this needs both facilities and expertise."

He highlighted that the BBSRC foresaw the need to improve the facilities at Compton, and the new laboratories there will be number one in the world. There is now a need to build the expertise further and to develop new fellowships and partnerships.

"Funding is fragile at this critical time," added Professor Brownlie, "but we are very proud of the work IAH does."

March 2011

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