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Animal health research community prioritises gaps in animal disease control

Brussels, 22 October 2021 – 126 experts and stakeholders from across Europe met this week in Brussels to discuss important knowledge gaps in animal disease control and assess the research needs to fill these gaps with a view to contributing to sustainable development goals and securing a healthy planet for the future.
Improving animal health is a key factor to address today’s global challenges. It is an essential component to improve animal welfare, to secure the provision of safe and nutritious food for a growing world population, to improve livelihoods and stimulate economic growth in rural areas, and to reduce natural resource use and emissions from the livestock sector. At the same time, global changes such as increased mobility of people and animals, changing consumer behaviours and climate change are altering disease risk and leading to the emergence of new pathogens. Public and private sectors are taking action on these challenges and investing in research for the development of new animal health solutions
The expert event took place in the framework of the DISCONTOOLS project, which celebrated the completion of the second update cycle of more than 50 infectious disease analyses, an effort taking 5 years in total. Experts from academia, governments and industry came together to review the identified research gaps and designate disease-specific as well as cross-cutting research gaps that should be filled in the coming decade. For many participants, it was the first physical meeting since the first covid-travel restrictions in March 2020 and a welcome moment to re-establish connections.

Prioritising research gaps

Claire Bury, Deputy-Director General of DG SANTE opened the meeting and welcomed reflections on 3 key aspects of animal health: (i) addressing challenges according a One Health approach; (ii) the interrelationships between animal health and animal welfare and (iii) the contribution of animal health to sustainable food systems. Stéphan Zientara, director of the Joint Research Unit in Virology at ANSES, pointed out the important role of DISCONTOOLS in advancing control measures against both well-known (e.g. tuberculosis) as well as emerging diseases (e.g. Bluetongue, West Nile, African horse sickness). DISCONTOOLS will be an important resource to underpin the envisaged animal health priorities during the French presidency to the EU. Johannes Charlier, DISCONTOOLS project manager, proposed a number of diseases for consideration as being those most likely to help deliver on the UN’s sustainable development goals. Furthermore, despite significant progress in the past decade, a pressing need persists for the development of stable and durable diagnostics, fundamental research to find breakthrough solutions for diseases where vaccines currently still don’t exist and insights into resistance mechanisms of bacterial as well as parasitic pathogens to address the antimicrobial resistance challenge. Disease experts then went on to highlight the current progress and challenges regarding control of African Swine Fever, Animal Influenza, Endoparasites and Bovine Tuberculosis (Box 1).

Filling the gaps

Nigel Swift, Global Head of Veterinary Public Health at Boehringer Ingelheim, spoke about how public-private partnerships (PPPs) in animal health can strengthen overall public health systems. He said that some of the best vaccine developments have come from public-private collaborations. However, PPPs help deliver not only on vaccine R&D, but also disease control and eradication, for instance in disease surveillance and response capacities. Understanding the goals of each party (financial, social, mission, timelines etc.), their relative strengths, and where these align, is key to successful long-term PPPs.  Alex Morrow, secretariat coordinator of the STAR-IDAZ International Research Consortium on animal health, explained how research planning can be globally coordinated using a roadmap approach. He showcased the STAR-IDAZ roadmaps for candidate vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and control strategies to better align future research calls and avoid duplication in effort. He also announced new roadmaps in the pipeline for research into therapeutic alternatives to antibiotics and vector-borne disease transmission. Finally, Jean-Charles Cavitte from DG AGRI and Hein Imberechts from Sciensano explained that previous European R&D projects did not always deliver the aspired control tools. Therefore, Europe needs to step-up collaboration among member states to foster new knowledge, control tools and support evidence-based policy making in animal health and welfare. The European Commission has proposed to set up a European Partnership for “Animal health and Welfare” (EUPAHW) under the Horizon Europe Research & Innovation framework. In a participatory approach, involving consultation of member states and different stakeholders, the Standing Committee on Agriculture Research together with DG AGRI is currently preparing a dossier for the European Commission to review. DISCONTOOLS is also giving inputs to this rigorous process that should lead to the launch of the Partnership in about 3 years’ time.

Stakeholder views

The event concluded with a panel discussion with animal health stakeholders on setting disease and cross-cutting research priorities and how DISCONTOOLS can continue to play a role in underpinning strategic research agendas. As director of the Global Burden of Animal Diseases (GBADs) programme with the OIE, Jonathan Rushton advocated for use of more econometric approaches in setting disease priorities. As such there are important future opportunities in collaboration between DISCONTOOLS and GBADs to improve current prioritisation settings. Paula de Vera, policy advisor at the farmer and agri-cooperatives organisation Copa-Cogeca, said that African Swine Fever and Avian Influenza are among the highest priority diseases for farmers in Europe at the moment.  She said that a firm commitment to biosecurity and hygiene which help to protect against all diseases are a shared responsibility that must be endorsed by all stakeholders, both from the animal and human side. Nancy De Briyne, executive director at the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe (FVE) stressed that DISCONTOOLS is an impressive resource to help address some of the great challenges of livestock farming today: keeping disease out, reducing the climate footprint, reducing the use of antibiotics and making animal farming more welfare friendly. It is important to see these challenges holistically and invest in “One Health”. DISCONTOOLS helps here by showing per disease which preventive tools (e.g. vaccines) are available and which can be advised by veterinarians conducting regular farm visits. However, even with the best preventive measures in place, animals can still get sick, so we should not lose sight of the diagnostic tools and treatment options that will always remain necessary. Similarly, David John from AnimalhealthEurope, stressed that we need a mixture of tools to address problems. Smart diagnostics tools and biosecurity as a first line of defense, complemented with innovations in vaccination, immunomodulators, nutritional products and animal breeding. He echoed the comment that, despite our best efforts, animals will still become sick from time to time, and we need continual investment in novel therapeutic options also. Suzanne Rasmussen (DG SANTE from the European Commission) stressed that the EU’s new Animal Health Law now offers increased possibilities for innovation by allowing for more vaccination and sanitary approaches instead of culling to control a disease. Moreover, the new legislation opens more possibilities to develop new technologies and laboratory methods. The meeting was closed by Johannes Charlier, who called on the experts to contribute to the new DISCONTOOLS updating cycle that will start now and for all  animal health stakeholders to play their part in setting the best standards for animal disease control and to deliver on the sustainable development goals.

Further information:
Clare Carlisle,
Senior Communications Manager, AnimalhealthEurope
Tel: +32 474 388711

Johannes Charlier,
DISCONTOOLS Project Manager
Tel: +32 486 934134
Note for editors:
DISCONTOOLS (DISease CONtrol TOOLS) is an open-access database to support public and private funders of animal health research in identifying research needs and developing research agendas. It evolved from the EU-7th framework programme funded project, to a joint initiative of the animal health industry and a wide range of stakeholders, including the research community, regulators, international organisations, veterinarians and farmers. The long-term goal is to deliver new control approaches and new or improved vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tests to reduce the burden of animal diseases. Database content is generated by disease-specific expert groups for over 50 infectious diseases of mainly livestock. DISCONTOOLS is a key resource for the STAR-IDAZ International Research Consortium (IRC) on animal health that coordinates research at a global level and develops roadmaps towards new and improved animal health strategies for priority diseases and cross-cutting issues. DISCONTOOLS receives financial support from a number of European countries, with AnimalhealthEurope providing secretariat support.
Box 1. Diseases in focus on DISCONTOOLS symposium
African Swine Fever (ASF) is sometimes referred to as the neglected pandemic, as this swine disease has now spread to 47 countries on three continents and has already led to major mortalities in pig populations such as the 37% loss in the Chinese pig population. Professor José Sánchez-Vizcaíno from Universidad Complutense de Madrid explained that vaccination would be the most efficient strategy for ASF control and there are some very promising prototypes for domestic pigs and wild boar vaccination in the pipeline. As coordinator of the EU financed VACDIVA project, he is aiming to develop an effective, safe and DIVA (Differentiate Infected from Vaccinated) vaccine against ASF over the next four years.
Animal Influenza belongs to the most significant epizootic diseases. The disease causes severe economic losses in poultry production and threatens endangered wild bird populations. Swine influenza viruses are endemic worldwide in many domestic swine populations. These different animal influenza viruses harbour considerable zoonotic potential, and a swine Influenza virus has caused the most recent human influenza pandemic in 2009. Professor Timm Harder from the Friedrich Loeffler Institut said that better understanding of animal influenza is required to ensure production of safe food products (agro-economy), to optimize intervention strategies such as biosecurity and vaccine-driven protection of holdings (epidemiology), to reduce the risks of zoonotic influenza virusses (public health), and to protect wild bird populations against virus incursions from poultry (conservation-ecology).
In an original duo-presentation, professors Diana Williams from the University of Liverpool and Jozef Vercruysse from Ghent University, spoke of the detrimental effects parasites of the gastrointestinal tract (endoparasites) continue to pose on grass-based farming systems worldwide. They said effective management of these infections is essential if livestock production is to meet the future human needs for dietary protein. However, parasite control is increasingly threatened by resistance to the antiparasitic drugs and by infection patterns being altered through changes in climate, land-use and farming practices. They stressed that through investing in better diagnosis, development of vaccines and improved therapeutics, an array of complementary control options and integrated control practices can be developed which would alleviate the reliance on anthelmintics as the sole control method.
Finally, professor Glyn Hewinson from Aberystwyth University showed the complexity of the epidemiology of Bovine Tuberculosis and why this disease remains a great concern worldwide. He drew the attention to the roadmap published by WHO, OIE and FAO for zoonotic tuberculosis detailing ten priorities for addressing zoonotic tuberculosis in people and bovine tuberculosis in animals. Priority development areas include development of sensitive and cheap test as well as of vaccines both for domestic livestock and for wildlife and the better understanding of the transmission pathways so to develop effective biosecurity measures. 
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