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Better understanding of foot-and-mouth disease offers potential for alternatives to culling

5 May 2011

Research published today in the journal Science shows that scientists have uncovered a window of opportunity when it is possible to identify cattle infected with foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) before they become infectious and/or show signs of having the disease.

  Foot-and-mouth disease: controlling outbreaks

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Researchers at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) along with colleagues at Defra (the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) are now assessing if this window of opportunity can be exploited to reduce the number of animals that are culled during an outbreak.

The researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), have shown for the first time that the period in which cattle are infectious before they show clinical signs of disease is much shorter than previously thought.

The research, carried out at IAH, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, and the University of Edinburgh, demonstrates that diagnosis of FMDV infection is possible during the approximately 24 hours before the animal becomes infectious.

Importantly, if this short window of opportunity is to be exploited there is a need for further development of effective and efficient in-field diagnostic tools that can detect the virus as early as researchers have been able to using laboratory techniques.

In addition, similar studies could be performed for other acute viral diseases such as influenza. This would help refine our understanding of how diseases spread and choose the most appropriate measures to control an outbreak.

Dr Bryan Charleston who led the team at the Institute for Animal Health said "Our discovery is good news and we hope that it will enable future refinement of the methods we use to control FMDV in the UK and beyond. That said, there are a huge number of factors involved in decisions about controlling this serious and fast-spreading virus. We have proof that it is possible to detect the virus in animals before they display signs of disease and before passing the infection on to other susceptible livestock, but there are a lot of other variables to consider before it is possible to come up with a new control strategy.

"Not least, this result emphasises the need for practical tools for pre-clinical diagnosis and at present we don't have an affordable, reliable, test to use on farms. We can identify infected cattle before they show signs of disease using tests in the laboratory; the next challenge is to do it in the field during an outbreak. This type of testing was successfully applied during the 2007 outbreak in Surrey on the basis of studies at IAH, including the early results of this research. We now need to develop the technology further with Defra in order to realise the potential benefits and possibly reduce the number of animals culled during an outbreak."

During the 2007 outbreak of FMDV preclinical testing of animals not yet showing signs of the disease was done every second day. This was successful in identifying infected cattle not showing clinical signs. The very early results of this project - which was funded by BBSRC in response to the 2001 outbreak - and other research programmes informed the decision to take that approach in 2007. This proved an excellent example of how the close interaction between research and diagnostic laboratories at the IAH can accelerate the application of high quality science.

Professor Mark Woolhouse who led the University of Edinburgh team said "This new information pins down the critical times for the detection and control of foot-and-mouth disease much more accurately. We now know that there is a window where, if affected cattle are detected and removed promptly, there may be no need for pre-emptive culling in the immediate area of an infected farm.

"This does make it very important that the disease is picked up quickly and farmers and others who care for livestock will continue to play a critical role. The only way we know that the disease is active is when an animal shows up with signs of the disease, which is too late. We now have an opportunity to develop new test systems which can detect infected animals earlier and reduce the spread of the disease."

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said "Foot–and–mouth disease has had a devastating impact in the UK in the past. This excellent research brings together top expertise in virology and epidemiology to get to the bottom of how this virus behaves. It is this thorough understanding of the causes of animal disease that will underpin future food security in the UK and ensure that we can maintain a healthy farming industry"

The research was funded by BBSRC as part of its Combating Viral Diseases of Livestock Initiative. The initiative was launched by BBSRC to further our understanding of damaging livestock diseases that cause significant economic, welfare and food security challenges.



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Notes to editors

This research is published in a paper entitled 'Relationship Between Clinical Symptoms and Transmission of an Infectious Disease and the Implications for Control' and will be available online to subscribers of Science from 1900hrs (BST) Thursday 05 May 2011 from:

About the Institute for Animal Health

The Institute for Animal Health, an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is a world-leading centre of excellence for research into viruses of farm animals, principally cattle, poultry, sheep, pigs and horses. Our research extends from fundamental to applied research, from genes all the way through to animal populations. It is our belief that better control of viral diseases requires a greater understanding of how each virus causes disease, how the immune systems of the farm animals respond to infection, and how the viruses spread, including those distributed by insects and other arthropods. In this way we contribute to the development of smarter, more effective vaccines; develop more discriminatory, user-friendly diagnostics; provide diagnostic services; and give expert knowledge to guide policy makers and farmers.

The Institute for Animal Health is currently undergoing a redevelopment with £100M investment by BBSRC thanks to additional funding from the department for Business Innovation and Skills. This follows extensive reviews of the UK's needs for animal health research to help ensure animal welfare and contribute to global food security.


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299