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Zoonoses Research Centre

Volume 822: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Prime Minister’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September 2020 in which he called for the creation of “a global network of zoonotic research hubs”, what progress they have made towards establishing a zoonoses research centre in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are committed to developing the scientific capability needed to protect the UK from zoonotic pathogens as part of the vision for a global network set out by the Prime Minister. In support of this, we are investing in new technologies, such as whole genome sequencing, and supporting our zoonotic and emerging disease research programmes. We also engage international partners on multilateral initiatives that support global health security and surveillance through one-health approaches.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer and acknowledge what is being done, but is it enough? A critical issue here is the animal-human interface. Past and present emerging human infections which have spilled over from animals to humans include HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, various influenzas, Covid-19 and monkeypox. Does the Minister agree that scaling up UK research in a virtual national zoonoses centre with global reach and a one-health approach will not only fulfil the Prime Minister’s pledge but be a significant demonstration of the UK’s commitment to aid the global effort to limit and prevent future pandemics?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. This is a major threat and was identified as such in the integrated review. We are corralling expertise within government, academia and the private sector, and our priorities are around genomics research, vector-borne disease research and projects to improve the use of surveillance. We think this is the best way that we can abide by not only the Prime Minister’s commitment but the leadership Britain has given in the G7 and G20 to make sure we have a global response to these threats.

My Lords, will my noble friend pay tribute in this regard to Fera, the food science facility at Sand Hutton, near York? I commend the work of many universities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge on this. Does monkeypox not show that just the sort of global framework argued for by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, is needed at this time and that Britain should be at the forefront of it?

I am very happy to pay tribute to Fera, which does extraordinarily important work and is part of a wide range of different organisations— I apologise to noble Lords; sometimes it is like an alphabet soup—which we are trying to bring together, with their various different strands of expertise, to make sure we tackle all zoonotic diseases. My noble friend is absolutely right that monkeypox is one of them.

My Lords, when the Labour Government were elected in 1997, we inherited the international beef ban. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy was a zoonosis which wreaked havoc on the British agriculture industry and our reputation, not just in Europe but internationally. I regret that, although we eventually solved the beef ban and the problem of BSE, the Labour Government did not go on to establish the kind of thing that the noble Lord, Lord Trees, talked about. I fear that this Government are making the same error. Does the Minister not recognise that, unless we act in a wholly different way, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, suggested, we will run the same risks again?

The noble Lord is absolutely right to point out the impact that these diseases have. Foot and mouth cost this country £8 billion and huge amounts of human and animal misery. Subsequent diseases, including Covid, have identified that we need to be so much more prepared for this. We are putting enormously increased resources into scientific research and the infrastructure that supports it. Our science capability in animal health, which is centred at Weybridge, has just been voted £200 million to improve its facilities, and there is much more to come in future. That is all part of being a significant contributor to the global effort to tackle zoonotic disease.

My Lords, what assessment has the Minister made of the risk of rabies being imported into this country from pets coming in from Ukraine?

There is a very large number of pets in Ukraine; it has one of the highest pets to human population percentages anywhere in the world. Rabies is an endemic disease there, but the good news is that over 95% of the many pets that have been brought with migrant families showed immunity to rabies when we applied the ELISA test, which indicates that they have been inoculated. We are trying to fast-track a means of quarantining them which is kind to the migrant but also protects our rabies-free status.

My Lords, the GB Wildlife Disease Surveillance Partnership focuses on detecting known and emerging diseases in wild animals, such as rabies-like viruses in bats and bovine tuberculosis in badgers. When cases are confirmed, controlled methods can be implemented. There is a need to broaden this surveillance to pathogens found in wild and domestic species. There is currently no funding for non-notifiable pathogens in UK wildlife. Is it not time that the Government took a more holistic view to prevent future outbreaks and provided such funding?

We are providing funding for diseases that can come from wildlife. One of the worst ones to hit us in recent months and over the last two years has been avian influenza, which is brought by migrating birds. We are putting a huge amount of effort into learning the lessons from both last year’s and this year’s outbreaks to make sure that we are supporting the industry with as much biosecurity as possible to prevent future outbreaks.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that the rapid increase in zoonotic diseases has its roots in the environmental crisis: deforestation, habitat destruction, intensive farming and unregulated trade in wild animals. Therefore, as well as the vital areas of medical research and response to disease, how are the Government focusing their intervention on prevention as well as diagnosis and cure?

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right to raise this issue. It was a feature at COP, where we managed to talk about more than just carbon and climate change; we also talked about the impact on nature, and on us, of a depleted environment. As the right reverend Prelate knows, we cannot address that within these borders; we have to continue to lead on it internationally, and the COP in Kunming at the end of this year is absolutely vital in taking forward the issues he raises.

My Lords, taking animals from the wild for their meat or for other products is a known major source of genetic diseases such as Ebola and HIV. With that in mind, why are the Government not prepared to ban in the kept animals Bill the keeping of primates as private pets in the UK? Surely that would significantly improve these protections.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to point out the impact of kept animals in passing on zoonotic disease. Trying to make our borders secure is absolutely vital, and I will get back to her about this issue because the Government still intend to include measures to prevent people keeping the wrong kind of pets in this country. It is wrong for the pets because our climate is not right for them, and we must also consider their welfare conditions.

We are supporting something called the Quadripartite MoU for One Health, which includes the OIE, the WHO, the FAO and UNEP—apologies again for the acronyms. That is part of what we are doing to participate in measures to address the surveillance issues, so that we know about diseases sooner and can react to them, and it is part of the response which we in the UK, as has been already pointed out, are particularly skilled at providing. There are a number of other international bodies of which we are a part.

My Lords, three-quarters of emerging human infections are zoonoses, and Covid-19 is only the latest example of this. It is therefore surprising that in our biological security strategy there are only fleeting mentions of zoonoses—one in a footnote and one in the glossary, and nothing else. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the strategy is being refreshed. However, unfortunately the call for evidence for the refresh makes only a very generic reference to them. We will need to correct that if we are going to claim to be world-leading on this. Our own national biological security strategy should give this dimension the attention it deserves.

The noble Lord is very knowledgeable on the wider context of threats, which the integrated review picks up. I point to the leadership that was given in the G7 when Britain had the chairmanship, and subsequently in other fora, to make sure that we are part of a global effort on this and that we are leading where we can add expertise.