LONDON – Once the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) launches a global network of scientific research on May 11, the United Kingdom will be better protected against animal diseases like avian flu and foot-and-mouth disease, according to DEFRA.

Globalized movements of animals, people and food are increasing the risk of animal diseases spreading to the UK, which could have serious economic, environmental and health consequences.

DEFRA is leading this network, which is funded by the EU, linking thousands of scientists throughout the globe. The network will allow them to exchange research, establish common goals and collaborate on developing future controls. Plus, it will enhance early warning systems by identifying what emerging diseases are being picked up abroad.

“Countries acting on their own just don’t have the resources to research every disease, all of the time, so sharing resources like this will get us maximum protection and value for money,” said Agriculture and Food Minister Jim Paice.

The €1million (US$1.4 million) EU-funded network will include the US, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark and the UK. It will be divided into three regions – the Americas, Asia and Australasia and Europe. Surrounding countries are anticipated to feed in. Participating countries hope an Africa region will follow.

Major diseases of concern include Avian Influenza; new strains of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome Virus (PRRSV), which are circulating in China; and African Swine Fever, which has spread from Africa to Russia.

Also involving the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the network will also help to develop control measures for current problems, such as TB- or drug- resistant parasites.

Estimates reveal that 75 percent of emerging animal diseases can be transmitted to humans, often from wildlife via livestock. The network will allow information to be shared more quickly on conditions that affect humans such as nipah virus infection. One outbreak of this disease in people in Malaysia has been traced back to pigs catching the virus from the droppings of bats in palm trees.

Participants point out the global network will also help improve the health and productivity of animals through speeding up development of improved control methods for existing diseases in the UK.

“Global coordination of our animal disease research efforts will help ensure that new technologies, such as diagnostic tools, vaccines and new treatments, are identified and put to work as quickly as possible to make a real difference to the health, welfare and productivity of livestock,” said Nigel Gibbens, UK chief veterinary officer.

DEFRA is also leading a similar EU network where member states work towards a common research agenda and share funding instead of acting unilaterally. To date it has initiated 12 research projects worth €21million (US$30 million) – €3.9 million (US$5.6 million) of which was contributed by the UK.