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Royal Society Calls for New U.K. Institute on Infectious Diseases

With the hope of centralizing research on human and animal diseases in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society today published a policy statement calling for the creation of a National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The society’s report says that an "integrated approach to infectious diseases would lead to overall improvements in public health and decrease response times to major outbreaks." This is important when dealing with diseases that can jump the species barrier in a sustained way, says virologist John McCauley of the National Institute for Medical Research, who contributed to the society’s report. He cites, for example, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, and different strains of avian influenza as human health concerns that are linked to animal diseases.

The new NIID would be an umbrella organization to bring together technical know-how, research expertise, and funding on infectious diseases. Currently, animal disease research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whereas human disease is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health

The Royal Society's statement highlights the key role for infectious disease research of the U.K.’s Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, a research facility built more than 50 years ago that is now showing its age. "The redevelopment of the IAH facility at Pirbright should be a priority," it concludes.

The report echoes the recommendations of a 2007 review undertaken after a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was traced to a release of the virus from the Pirbright site. The so-called Anderson report warned at the time that IAH's "governance and funding arrangements are muddled and ineffective" and highlighted the importance of the Pirbright Site Redevelopment Programme, proposed in 2003. At the time, the estimated £120 million cost for that project was to be divided among BBSRC, Defra, and what is now the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. BBSRC and DIUS are still keen on the Pirbright redevelopment plan, but Defra's commitment to deliver its £67 million share has been questioned.

The U.K.'s ability to respond to future epidemics needs an integrated approach, with a common pool of knowledge and a critical mass of scientists with different expertise, says microbiologist Keith Gull of the University of Oxford, who chaired the Royal Society committee whose work led to the new policy statement. A strong animal research institute at Pirbright is fundamental to that goal, he adds.