Foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) causes one of the most economically important viral diseases of domestic livestock including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Since the disease is endemic in many countries, transmission by international travel / trade presents an on-going potential threat to the UK.

FMDV is one of the most contagious mammalian viruses: it can infect domestic animals and over 70 species of wildlife, greatly increasing the difficulty of disease control – further complicated by the existence of 7 distinct serotypes with thousands of strains. Rising demand for animal products in, for example, China and India together with poor harvests (leading to increased animal feed prices), has lead to sustainability of food supplies becoming a UK strategic research priority.

FMDV is probably the most rapidly replicating mammalian virus known: cells die within ~4hrs. Undoubtedly genomic features unique to FMDV are responsible, but very little detail is known as to how the virus interacts with the cell to such dramatic effect. Paradoxically, FMDV readily establishes persistent infections, complicating disease control measures: similarly, very little is known about this process at the molecular level.

Following the UK FMDV outbreak in 2001, a key recommendation in the report of the Royal Society was the promotion of collaborations between University-based academics and those at Pirbright. Given the nature of the virus, however, it was not at all clear how this recommendation could be realised in practice. Relatively recently permission has been granted by HSE/DEFRA to work outwith Pirbright on the FMDV ‘replicon’ (a form of the genome bearing a large deletion within the capsid proteins – completely biosecure). This has made possible – for the first time on FMDV – a new, higher-level, interaction between University-based academics with those based at Pirbright. The university laboratories have long-standing interests and expertise in the molecular biology of FMDV / molecular virology, or, can bring exciting and very powerful new technologies to bear on these new lines of investigation.

The Pirbright Institute is a world centre of excellence on FMDV, hosts the World and European reference laboratories for this virus, and now is the site of a World-leading bio-security research facility (follow link to ‘Project Partners’).

One of the unanimous recommendations made at the OIE/FAO Global Conference on Foot and Mouth Disease (Asunción, Paraguay 24-26 June 2009) was “There is an urgent need for research in vaccines that will improve the access of countries to good quality vaccines that are fit for purpose against the prevailing field strains of the FMD virus in each virus reservoir, in each relevant species, and which can be cost effective and used in challenging environmental conditions”. The conference reiterated support for “Further research on the development of effective and quality vaccines and the availability of vaccines at diminished cost for all prevailing field strains of the FMD virus for all susceptible domestic animals be encouraged and expedited with the emphasis on the availability, cost-effectiveness and safe use under challenging environmental conditions”.

There is, therefore, complete accord between the aspirations by the global FMDV community and the BBSRC strategic research priorities;

(i) Animal Health. The animal health priority is to support research aimed at combating infectious diseases – including endemic, exotic and zoonotic – that reduce the health and welfare of animals farmed for food production in the UK.

(ii) Livestock Production. The overall BBSRC food security priority aims to encourage research that will enhance UK and/or global food security.