09:11am Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Arab Spring and the spread of animal disease

The Arab Spring has changed many people’s lives in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. But the revolutionary spirit has brought wider, unforeseen problems too – not least the moment of animals and the spread of diseases, namely foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

In 2012, samples from outbreaks of FMD in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories have been received by the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), Pirbright, UK, which acts as World Reference Laboratory (WRL) for FMD for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (ref 1).

On the move: people and agriculture in Egypt. Image:  Ray Witilin/World Bank Photo Collection

On the move: people and agriculture in Egypt.
Image: Ray Witilin/World Bank Photo Collection

“I think what we have seen is a movement of disease because of conflict,” says Dr Jef Hammond, Head of Vesicular Disease Reference Laboratories at IAH. “People and animals are moving in large numbers and with that the diseases go with them.”

FMD can be fatal in young cattle and causes widespread and myriad problems in the areas where it strikes, devastating herds and bringing economic hardship to communities already stressed by human conflict and drought.

The recent spread of the SAT2 strain of the FMD virus across Africa is an emergency that has heightened activity at IAH, an institute that receives strategic funding from BBSRC. IAH Pirbright is a global hub in the fight against FMD as well a number of other diseases (see ‘Timeline‘) and its laboratories have been at the centre of efforts to identify and contain the march of infection as countries struggle with the ongoing political transitions.

“It’s certainly been suggested by the FAO at meetings I’ve attended recently that the Arab Spring is a contributing factor in new outbreaks and spread of disease,” says Hammond. “We hope to get more info and map the pathway of those viruses from the south to the north of Africa.”

On call

Funded by BBSRC and Defra, the World Reference Laboratory at IAH is recognised as the leading place in the world for FMD diagnosis and research. What that means is that when an outbreak is detected anywhere in the world, Hammond’s team can answer the call and provide crucial support to identify whether the disease is present, which strain or serotype of FMD is causing the problem, and provide advice. This is critical because there is no one-size-fits-all vaccine for FMD due to the wide variety of strains, so control strategies need to be based around specific situations and vaccines in each case.

Computer-generated model of the foot-and-mouth disease virus. Image: IAH

Computer-generated model of the foot-and-mouth disease virus. Image: IAH

“There was a call from Egypt to help because this new disease was sweeping through their territory,” says Hammond. The Egyptians made their own initial diagnosis and worked with the WRL to confirm their virus genome sequence in a matter of hours. After Hammond received actual samples, the diagnosis was confirmed in just 24 hours.

Genetic sequencing technology can tease apart the differences between virus serotypes in each country and be used to track the movement of the virus. So far, analysis of the data suggest an independent introduction of the FMD SAT2 serotype into Libya, and then either two independent introductions or a single introduction of two lineages into Egypt from one or more countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Seeing the SAT2 serotype was a surprise for virologists like Hammond – it had been mostly confined to southern Africa for more than 50 years. The good news is that there is a vaccine for the SAT2 strain; the bad news is that because it’s a less common strain, the availability of that particular vaccine is quite limited at present. “No large amounts are made by anyone,” says Hammond, adding that pharma company Merial, who are also based at Pirbright, are working to build up more vaccine as the Egyptians look into sourcing the vaccine more locally.

Centre stage

The Egypt FMD outbreak brings into focus various factors that highlight the importance of the work done at IAH. As a reference lab that, Hammond estimates, handles 75% of the output and knowledge on the state of FMD around the world, the WRL underpins the global efforts to identify and control diseases that can have a significant impact on the health, food security and economy of a country.

IAH has a portfolio of diagnostic responsibilities at national, regional and international levels. Image: IAH

IAH has a portfolio of diagnostic responsibilities at national, regional and international levels. Image: IAH. (Click image to enlarge)

One of the main challenges is that FMD has been eradicated from some countries, typically developed ones, but is endemic in many developing countries which can re-infect neighbouring states. Furthermore, for political or religious reasons, control strategies suitable for one state, such as mass vaccination or culling, are not possible in others. “In many counties FMD status is unknown,” Hammond explains. “Even countries like Egypt have just begun to look and found five different strains where before only serotypes O and A have been reported since the 1950s.”

Part of the answer is utilising and enhancing the WRL’s status as a super-connected hub of information. The more data they can bring in on the movements of different strains around the world, the better the chances of reacting swiftly and decisively when the disease strikes – and keeping the disease at bay by improving surveillance and quarantine procedures at key trading ports for example.

“I’ve always tried to push for a win-win scenario,” says Hammond. “We provide people with knowledge and they are able to provide more results to their government and national pool of data.” Combining and expanding knowledge databases around the world then means that the WRL can act as a central hub of information that governments, policy- and decision-makers can use at a global level to see where targeted approaches are most needed.

Such strategies recently led to the global eradication of rinderpest, a devastating viral disease of livestock. Careful about using the word ‘eradication’, Hammond says the approach is more global progressive control. “Some countries might not be able to get near an eradication level of protection, but certainly they can generate more info on what going on in their country, and that can lead to better informed control measures and further assistance from the OIE [World Organisation for Animal Health] and FAO,” says Hammond.

Training regime

The WRL uses part of its BBSRC and Defra funding to organise training programmes at Pirbright and abroad. The international trips in particular are a way to help countries to help themselves, but crucially are a way for WRL staff to see what people on the ground have to work with in terms of equipment, infrastructure and staff. “Training requirements are becoming more critical as more labs want training in not just diagnostics, but quality assurance, biosecurity and biosafety,” says Hammond. “We are looked upon to provide that kind of training because we are world experts.”

Confocal microscope view of FMD infection. Not all laboratories have matching resources. Image: IAH

Confocal microscope view of FMD infection. Not all laboratories have matching resources.
Image: IAH

Their travels have told them that some countries are resource poor in areas such as veterinary services; others suffer from poor infrastructure that can affect the transit of samples and vaccines for instance. “It’s no use training oversees staff in state-of-the-art technologies if back in their own labs they don’t have water for half the day or electricity only three days a week,” Hammond explains. “Some parts of Africa and Asia have issues with things that we would consider basic, and some labs can’t carry out a PCR [polymerase chain reaction, to amplify DNA samples], but they could complete another type of test so we have to target our approaches to the lab in question.”

Hammond adds that although they are bringing in people for training from all over the world, at present he doesn’t have enough people to go out and see how other countries operate so that they can provide useful input. “We run a Rolls Royce service with a Cortina budget,” Hammond laments. “And of course, other countries have FMD crises at the same time, such as the current FMD Asia1 serotype in Turkey and Iran, so from a lab point of view we’re very stretched dealing with a number of crises rather than just this one.”

However, he is working with colleagues at the OIE and FAO to secure new sources of funding for expanded programmes. With that secured, he thinks they will be able to provide more training at a global level without compromising diagnostic work back home. “An enormous amount of WRL work is underpinned by BBSRC support,” says Hammond. “The Defra budget is valuable too and contributes towards lab activity, staff and reagents, but a lot of other things are not covered by that money.”

The future is Pir-bright

And back at IAH, major developments are underway that should secure WRL activities at Pirbright for decades. With over 50 years work as a reference laboratory under their belts, new multi-million pound investment laboratories currently under construction and due to be completed 2014-15 will maintain IAH’s place at the forefront of FMD research worldwide.

New multi-million pound laboratories are under construction to house World Reference Laboratory activities into the future. Image: IAH.

New multi-million pound laboratories are under construction to house World Reference Laboratory activities into the future. Image: IAH.

The recently completed IS4L labs (see video) now house FMD research under ultra-secure conditions. But WRL activities have stayed put – for now – because as part of a £100M+ investment in the Pirbright site the bigger, better DP1 lab will eventually house the WRL. “We don’t want to be moving a high-profile diagnostic laboratory twice in just a few years,” says Hammond, who is very excited about the new premises going up on site. “It will be an enormous benefit to have new labs for the WRL: newer operational facilities, equipment, bench space, and reinvigorated staff. It will inspire people and it’ll be an exciting place to work.”

In the new building, an entire wing will be dedicated for FMD work and the structure brings all research and diagnostics together which will enhance staff interactions. Elsewhere in the building other reference laboratory work will continue on other important animal diseases. (See graphic for full list of IAH reference laboratory work at national, European and global levels).

Researchers are working hard to counter threats such as bluetongue and pestes de petite ruminants (PPR, a relative of the recently eradicated rinderpest), both important diseases of sheep and ruminants. Then there is African swine fever, a deadly virus of pigs that like bluetongue is on the move on the borders of Europe, migrating from Russia to the Ukraine in 2012. “There is no vaccine at all for African Swine Fever, so in susceptible pigs you can get 100% mortality,” Hammond warns.

Timeline: A brief history of Pirbright (TBC)

  • 1913: The first buildings are constructed to form the Cattle Testing Station for tuberculosis
  • 1924: Pirbright becomes the Pirbright Experimental Station for the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Research Committee, part of the Central Veterinary Laboratory
Aerial view of the Pirbright site.

Aerial view of the Pirbright site.
(Click image to enlarge)

  • 1939: Full-time Director of Research appointed and Pirbright became independent of the Central Veterinary Laboratory at New Haw, near Weybridge. It was renamed the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Research Institute, later known as the Research Institute (Animal Virus Diseases)
  • 1958: Pirbright site established as WRL for FMD
  • 1963: The Institute at Pirbright re-named the Animal Virus Research Institute
  • 1986: The Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh, the Institute for Research on Animal Diseases in Compton, and the Houghton Poultry Research Station merge to form the Institute for Animal Disease Research, soon afterwards renamed the Institute for Animal Health (IAH)
  • 2001: IAH plays key role fighting 2001 FMD outbreak in the UK
Computer-generated impression of part of new Pirbright Development. Image: IAH

Computer-generated impression of part of new Pirbright Development. Image: IAH

  • 2007: IAH plays key role fighting 2007 FMD outbreak in the UK
  • 2009: Plans announced for £100M+ investment from the UK government via BBSRC for Pirbright site
  • 2010: Phase one redevelopment started for the construction of a new high containment laboratory complex
  • 2011: IS4L laboratory completed and an additional £100M+ announced from the UK government via BBSRC for a second phase of redevelopment
  • 2012: Plays key role fighting Middle East and North Africa FMD outbreak
  • 2014-15: New high containment laboratory to open
  • 2015-16: Second phase of redevelopment to be completed


  1. Foot-and-mouth disease: North Africa and Middle East (external link)


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329
fax: 01793 413382

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