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Dr Ray Kent, Director of Research and Innovation Services, Royal Veterinary College

31 August 2020, 8:09 UTC Share

Prevention is better than cure: avoiding future pandemics

Over the course of this year, pathogens that have crossed the species barrier from animals to humans – so-called ‘zoonotic’ diseases – have moved from relative obscurity to centre-stage in the public eye.

In particular, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic has filled not only our newspaper columns, but also affected every waking moment of people across the planet. It has forced us to consider the context and nature of existential risk; and the threats to our health that have arisen as a rapidly-growing human population, along with its livestock, encroaches on the environment and interacts with wildlife.

To demonstrate the scope of the problem, some 60% of human infections are thought to be of zoonotic origin. Considering all new and emerging human infectious diseases, about three-quarters are believed to ‘jump species’ from animals to humans. This usually happens indirectly, for example via food supply systems.

The One Health approach

At The Royal Veterinary College (RVC), we’ve been working to prevent future pandemics and more limited outbreaks of novel zoonotic disease, by seeking to understand and address the underlying causes of disease emergence. These include: an increased demand for animal protein, an unsustainable intensification of agricultural practices, the increased use and exploitation of wildlife (illegal trading, wet markets), rapid urbanisation and land-use change, climate change and allied stresses such as sea-level rise, and an increasingly connected world (international transportation of food, and air passenger travel).

The RVC is leading the way in considering how ‘One Health’ – an interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral approach focusing on the areas where the health of people, livestock, wildlife and environments converge – can help in the prevention and management of zoonotic diseases. We are doing so through our leadership of initiatives such as the One Health Poultry Hub, a Ł20-million, 5-year research and impact programme funded by UKRI under the Global Challenges Research Fund, comprising partners from 27 institutions across Europe and Asia; and through our membership of interdisciplinary organisations such as the London International Development Centre.

We are also tackling disease by creating new, world-class translational research facilities in which our researchers can interact with businesses to develop new vaccines and diagnostic tools. Thus, in January 2021, the RVC will open a Ł28-million Veterinary Vaccinology and Cell Therapy Hub at our Hawkshead campus in Hertfordshire. This Hub will complement the College’s Centre for Emerging, Endemic and Exotic Diseases, which undertakes research on infection and immunity to the pathogens that cause zoonotic diseases.

Evidence-informed policy for disease prevention

Initiatives such as One Health Poultry would not be successful if from their inception, they did not engage with policy-makers. Since its founding in 1791, the College has been at the heart of scientific enquiry into diseases of animals and humans. Currently the RVC is working with many different actors to produce evidence-informed policies that will help the world respond to and mitigate future disease outbreaks, whilst actively reducing the risk of their emergence by breaking the chain of transmission. These actors include governments, NGOs, specialist research institutes and civil society.

Prominent amongst them are the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) and the FAO (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation). Thus, RVC and the UK Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) are hosts to a OIE Collaborating Centre for Risk Analysis and Modelling; and the RVC is an FAO Reference Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology. We partner with the APHA in providing academic expertise in veterinary epidemiology, virology and veterinary pathology. The aim of this engagement is to promote good practice in animal husbandry, better zoonotic control measures, improvements in human nutrition (including the adoption of higher standards in food safety, biosecurity), and advances in veterinary epidemiology and public health.

Pandemics such as COVID-19 are a predictable consequence of the choices we as human beings make as we source and grow food, transport and raise increasing numbers of livestock, and degrade natural resources such as soil, water, forests and other habitats for wildlife. Logically, we must mobilise all the available expertise – veterinary, medical and environmental – if we are to tackle zoonotic disease outbreaks and pandemics. This is in keeping with the RVC’s motto – Venienti Occurrite Morbo – when confronting disease, prevention is better than cure.

Dr Ray Kent joined the RVC in 2016 as Director of Research and Innovation Services. His role is to build partnerships that support the College’s efforts to grow its reputation as a world-leading centre for veterinary science and medicine, with applications to human health.

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