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THE Veterinary Laboratories Agency (vla) has long been in the thick of things and the past 12 months have been no exception. In his introduction to the vla's annual review for 2005/06*, which has just been published, its chief executive, Professor Steve Edwards, highlights, in particular, its role in helping to meet the global challenge posed by avian influenza, being an international reference laboratory for this disease for both the World Organisation for Animal Health (oie) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (fao). It is also the Community reference laboratory for avian influenza, which requires it to provide coordinating and confirmatory diagnostic functions for national laboratories in eu member states. He reports that, as avian influenza has spread across Asia and extended into Europe and Africa, the vla has been at the forefront of international efforts to monitor the disease patterns and provide advice on control. As a partner in international networks established by the oie, fao and the World Health Organization, it has, he points out, provided confirmatory testing, viral rna sequence analysis, technical support and training and supplied reagents ‘across the world’.
Perhaps more than any other disease in recent times, avian influenza has emphasised the need for international collaboration in surveillance and research, and it is noteworthy that the annual review should highlight the various international networks with which the vla is involved. These include ‘offlu’, an oie/fao network of expertise on avian influenza; Flu-Lab-Net, an eu-funded project which aims to share and exchange methodological, virological, genetic, epidemiological and clinical information on influenza; Med-Vet-Net, an eu network involving veterinary and medical scientists which focuses on zoonoses of food-producing animals (see VR, November 26, 2005, vol 157, pp 682-684); and CoVetLabs, a European network of five national reference veterinary laboratories which aims to ‘advance high quality veterinary science and enlarge scientific capabilities by disseminating knowledge, sharing experiences and transferring skills and technology’. Such collaborations are clearly desirable in their own right. However, they are likely to become more important in the future as resources remain limited and the disease challenges increase.
Collaborations in the uk include a cooperation agreement with five other public sector research establishments to promote the sharing of knowledge on topics of strategic and operational importance such as emergency response and disease control. Links with the Health Protection Agency, Professor Edwards remarks, have strengthened a newly developed vla veterinary public health strategy, while ongoing collaboration with the Institute for Animal Health (iah) has broadened its animal health expertise. This particular relationship, he says, will be explored further during the coming year as defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council investigate alternative models for the vla and iah.
Avian influenza is by no means the only high-profile disease with which the vla is involved, and the annual review outlines its scientific and other activities in relation to diseases including bovine tuberculosis and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (tses), as well as its programmes relating to food and environmental safety, statutory and exotic viral diseases, and emerging diseases and animal welfare. tses are still at the forefront of the vla's research, surveillance and reference laboratory work, and Professor Edwards remarks that, as the incidence of bse continues to decline, it is facing up to new scientific challenges with the emergence of atypical strains of scrapie.
In addition to its roles in research and development, the vla plays a vital role in day-to-day disease surveillance and a welcome new feature of this year's review is an article discussing ‘a day in the life’ of vla veterinary surgeons working at two of its regional centres. Also of interest, in view of current emphasis on the environment, is a description of a new Animal Services Unit at the vla's site at Weybridge. This has been built to high environmental standards and, it is reported, has won two prestigious building awards relating to its sustainability.
The annual review makes clear the central role of the vla in safeguarding animal health, which makes it all the more disturbing that its budget is to be cut this year, as are the budgets of other agencies funded by defra. defra's departmental budget needs to be cut by £200 million this year, as a result, depending on what you believe, of Treasury intransigence, the rural payments debacle or unplanned departmental expenditure on avian influenza. A recent parliamentary question (see p 610 of this issue) has given some indication of where the savings are to be made. Along with the State Veterinary Service (svs), the vla is to lose 3 per cent of its funding from defra; for the vla, this amounts to £2·4 million, and, for the svs, £3 million. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate is to lose 7 per cent of its funding from defra, which in its case amounts to £283,000. All of these agencies play a vital role in safeguarding animal and public health, and none of this is helpful. In a year that saw the fifth anniversary of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, and has already seen outbreaks of avian influenza and Newcastle disease in the uk and the appearance of bluetongue in northern Europe, the Government should not need reminding of the need to continually invest in animal health, or the dangers of not doing so.