The BSI has collaborated with the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network (IVVN) to create a new policy report to raise awareness of the UK’s world-leading research status in veterinary vaccinology. In this article, our Research Partnerships Manager, Ben Wilcock, discusses the findings of this report and explains its importance, both for the BSI’s policy work and mission and for the veterinary vaccinology community.
The ‘Securing our future’ report was launched in mid-August. It provides recommendations to policymakers and funders about what the UK needs to do to maintain its position and explains why veterinary vaccinology is crucial to the international research landscape and global food security.
In addition to celebrating the UK’s many successes in veterinary vaccinology and highlighting the economic benefit of UK investment in this area, the report makes the following recommendations:
- We urgently need to secure the future of funding for all aspects of veterinary vaccinology
- We need to see further investment in UK veterinary vaccine manufacturing capabilities
- We must support career development and opportunities for early career researchers
- We must provide a ‘One Health’ approach
- We need to work collaboratively with international academic and industry partners to protect animal and human global health
UK investment, global food security and collaboration
With the global population set to reach over 9 billion by the year 2050, meat production will need to increase dramatically while also improving efficiency to mitigate the impact of climate change. Veterinary vaccines have a vital role to play in ensuring safe, sustainable food for everyone. Globally, and particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), people rely on local livestock for food. However, infectious diseases in LMICs are estimated to reduce livestock productivity by around 20%, increasing the cost and reducing the availability of food, leaving already impoverished people to go hungry. Veterinary vaccines increase farming efficiency and reduce losses to animal disease, improving the environmental impact of livestock farming and helping to provide safe food for everyone over the decades to come.
Alongside the threats to global food security that a lack of investment in research on veterinary vaccinology poses, there needs to be a continued commitment for immunologists to work together to tackle cross-species diseases. The report stresses that, although human and animal diseases are often considered separately, it is increasingly apparent that the health of people, livestock, wild animals and the environment we share are intrinsically linked. One of the report’s contributors, Professor George Warimwe from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme and the University of Oxford, is leading on the development of a vaccine for Rift Valley Fever (RVF), a viral disease that affects humans and a range of animals, including cattle, sheep, goats and camels. This vaccine, ChAdOx, uses the same viral vector as the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, with the aim of designing a vaccine that could be used in humans as well as animals. Early trials showed that the vaccine gave 100% protection against challenge infections in animals. Professor Warimwe explains: “My approach is to recognise the fact that pathogens can move between humans and animals and to leverage knowledge from veterinary vaccinology and use that to benefit human vaccine research and vice versa. RVF affects both humans and animals, so the solutions should not be separate. We need to have more collaboration between medical and veterinary researchers to accelerate the development of vaccines and be more efficient with resources.”
RVF is just one of many diseases that affect both humans and animals, and immunologists must continue to work collaboratively to tackle the threat of infectious cross-species diseases, here in the UK and around the world.
While the UK is a world leader in the field of veterinary vaccine development, cuts to research funding threaten continued British success in this area. Although the recent announcement of a new Animal Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre to be established at the Pirbright Institute is welcome, manufacturing capability is still limited.
Funding cuts are not the only threat to the UK’s excellence in the field of veterinary immunology and vaccinology. The UK’s annual foreign aid budget was decreased this year from 0.7% of national income – the figure that the UK had committed to foreign aid since 2015 – to 0.5%, a difference of around £4 billion. As some of this budget is used to fund work on veterinary vaccines in LMICs, this cut directly threatens the development and provision of vaccines for use in these countries and could have a devastating effect on their agricultural security and economies.
Case study: foot-and-mouth disease vaccines
Many readers will remember the UK’s foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001, which devastated the country’s agriculture and tourism industries. At the height of the UK FMD epidemic, 80,000– 93,000 animals per week were slaughtered to prevent further spread of the disease, and the outbreak is estimated to have cost £3.1 billion to agriculture, with further losses to tourism and business of around £2.9 billion. Following the catastrophic impact of the 2001 UK outbreak, the law was changed in the UK to allow animals to be vaccinated against FMD. However, continued investment in the UK’s vaccine manufacture capabilities is needed to ensure that we – and the rest of the world – can cope with any future outbreaks of FMD and other diseases. “There’s a huge global undersupply of the FMD vaccine. It’s one of the biggest selling vaccines in the world, but it’s still not enough,” says Professor Bryan Charleston, Director at the Pirbright Institute, which monitors and researches the disease.
While FMD outbreaks are fortunately rare in the UK, the disease is endemic in many LMICs. Repeated outbreaks have a devastating effect on the economies of these countries, thought to cost at least £5 billion per year. The Pirbright Institute is working on the next generation of FMD vaccines, which Prof Charleston says, “induce a much stronger immune response, are more stable, can be stored for longer, and can be adapted quickly for new strains.” Securing sustained funding for zoological vaccines to mitigate the global effects of FMD and other diseases that threaten animal and human health is urgently needed.
Growing the next generation of veterinary vaccinologists
The report also highlights the lack of early career researchers whose research is focused on animal health, and the recent BSI careers report revealed that fewer than 5% of immunologists would consider a career in veterinary immunology. While recruitment is stable up to PhD level, a lack of funding for post-doctoral and early-career pathways coupled with a perceived lack of job or mentoring opportunities makes it less likely that good researchers remain in the field. As Professor Jayne Hope, Deputy Director at the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, says: “We can attract people into PhD positions relatively easily, but we struggle to keep those people moving through the career path to post-docs and early career fellowships. That’s partly to do with funding and partly to do with the perception that there’s a lack of career opportunities”.
Our report explains how these barriers need to be removed to challenge the perception that a career in veterinary immunology is less viable than other career paths and, again, underlines the importance of sustained funding to support early career researchers.
The aim of this report is to emphasise the importance of sustained investment in veterinary vaccinology, and we hope that the report’s audience recognises that for continued UK leadership in this area, we need to commit to respond to the challenges that we are facing. As Dr Elma Tchilian, Head of Mucosal Immunology at The Pirbright Institute and Chair of the BSI’s Comparative and Veterinary Immunology Group says, “This report shows the strength of British veterinary vaccinology and immunology, but funders and policymakers need to be aware that they need to support research and career development if this is to be maintained”.
The BSI would like to thank the IVVN Advisory Group for their collaboration on this report: Dr Tim Connelley; Professor Gary Entrican; Dr Michael Francis and Dr Elma Tchilian from the BSI’s Comparative & Veterinary Immunology Group. Thanks also go to all the veterinary immunologists who spoke to us as part of our research and First Create The Media for the text and design of this report.