Dedicated people applying science in the name of vigilance

I might be accused of favouritism but in one case I don’t care. I have written recent blog posts about the exciting work being done by Defra’s scientists at our Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquatic Science (CEFAS). I now want to highlight the great work being done at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

Britain is great at science, there is no doubt. We have one of the strongest university research sectors in the world and are investing in imaginative new institutions such as The Francis Crick and The Alan Turing Institutes. These and other places often produce stories about new discoveries which will eventually lead to some excellent innovation, some of which will incrementally make our lives better and a very small number of which could genuinely change our lives.

This is all good stuff, but we have a tendency to shine the spotlight on a certain kind of science that captures our imaginations about a different and better future rather than science which keeps the show on the road. This is what large numbers of government scientists spend their time doing.

This is exemplified by the scientists working at the Animal and Plant Health Agency. These individuals are largely responsible for keeping our farm animals, pets including dogs and cats, bees and our plants including our horticultural crops, cereals and our garden plants safe from disease and unwanted pests. They are the skilled boffins who can identify these diseases and pests and stop them arriving here in Britain. They also develop new control methods for them and add certainty to decisions made by ministers about what to do in cases of emerging disease.

For example, bovine tuberculosis is one of the most difficult diseases to manage and it is endemic in cattle and some wildlife, mainly badgers. The whole issue about how to deal with this has been hugely controversial mainly because badger culling in some places has emerged as one of the solutions. But culling badgers is a small part of the overall effort to control and understand the disease. Much of the other work, such as trying to find a better test for the presence of TB in cattle or testing new vaccines, goes unreported. The work of APHA’s scientists tends not to hit the headlines because it’s hard to report on work where the results emerge slowly – it will take decades to bring bovine tuberculosis under control. But a small victory for the scientists at APHA will hopefully come next year when the intention is to apply to the European Commission to have northern and eastern England declared officially free of bovine tuberculosis.

Nobody should under-represent the huge effort in terms of the lives and careers of the scientists at APHA in getting to such a milestone. However, they also know that eliminating bovine TB from all of England is almost certainly something that none of them will achieve in their careers, such is the size of the task at hand. But they will happily make their contribution to this long-term effort. I want to shout to the gallery in praise of their heroic efforts even if they themselves remain quiet and modest about their contribution.

Something we are often unaware of is that diseases are always changing. The scientists in APHA recognise well known diseases like rabies, TB and anthrax as fairly well fixed entities but they are also very aware of the unpredictable nature of disease. The pathogen which is causing ash die-back and caused so much controversy in 2013 was a benign fungus which changed to become a pathogenic fungus. Avian influenza, like all influenza viruses, is another of those highly variable diseases which can change from a low pathogenic strain to become highly pathogenic in the blink of an eye. It can also change from being a pathogen in birds to a pathogen in people too.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), also known as prion diseases, gave rise to a version in cattle in the 1990s known to everybody as BSE. Another version of this has emerged in deer in North America. Known as Chronic Wasting Disease, it has recently appeared in a few deer in Scandinavia. As far as we know it has very low transmissibility to people but we need to be cautious. TSEs are a complex and perplexing kind of disease which can emerge spontaneously.

Added to this there are many viral diseases which could mutate to become a problem – ebola and HIV are likely examples which probably transmitted from other species to people.

Spread of non-native invasive species is also a constant concern, such as the unwelcome Asian Hornet which eats honey bees, spotted earlier this year. Scientists at APHA are always on the look out to quickly identify these pests and stop them in their tracks before they spread beyond control.

The scientists at APHA scan this disease and pest landscape on our behalf and are ever vigilant. It is easy to forget them and as a result forget what they do for us to sustain the food we eat, our trading position in the world and our own health. Taking five minutes to check out the work APHA do is well worthwhile.