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Emerging infections of importance to human health

Environmental and Social Ecology of Human Infectious Diseases (ESEI) initiative

This ground-breaking initiative aims to establish novel interdisciplinary approaches to studying the ecology of infectious diseases. NERC, MRC, ESRC and BBSRC recognise that important new insights into the drivers and control of infectious diseases in human populations can only be achieved by taking a holistic systems approach which takes into account the ways in which the natural and social environments affect the emergence (emergence, re-emergence, and development of drug resistance) and spread of infectious disease. This new paradigm will enable us to respond proactively to the threat from novel pathogens and emerging infections. The following awards were made:

ENIGMA - Campylobacter and human behaviour in a changing environment
MONKEYBAR - Human infection with Plasmodium knowlesi: opportunities for prevention and control of an emerging zoonotic infection
URBANZOO - Epidemiology, ecology and socio-economics of disease emergence in Nairobi

Further information is available on the Environment and Health programmes website and in our ESEI Showcase Report (PDF, 15.16MB).

Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS): reducing the risk to livestock and people

Livestock production systems in developing countries are rapidly changing, increasing the risks of infections transmitted from animals to humans known as (zoonoses).  Human exposure to zoonoses related to livestock systems can be through interaction with livestock and animal products, through vectors of disease, and through direct contact with zoonotic organisms in wildlife, water, soil and air within the livestock system.

ZELS is a joint research initiative between DFID, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  It aims to provide robust evidence from multi- and interdisciplinary research, to minimise the health risks associated with zoonoses, focusing on those risks which impact on the livelihoods and health of poor people.

Read more about the individual ZELS projects which have been supported in our leaflet. (PDF, 1.56MB)

Joining the fight against Ebola

MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling (Director: Neil M. Ferguson) as part of WHO Ebola Response Team – alerted the world to the scale of the epidemic with their NEJM paper.

When WHO declared the West Africa Ebola outbreak an emergency in August 2014 the MRC quickly engaged with funding partners Wellcome Trust and DFID, to rapidly assess and fund a £2.8m grant to support the first UK, phase 1 trial of an ebola vaccine candidate . A team led by Adrian Hill at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford commenced safety tests and immunogenicity of a candidate Ebola vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the US National Institutes of Health initially in volunteers in Oxford and then West Africa.  This joint approach built on strong partnership working established through our Joint Global Health Trials Scheme. The trial published initial outcomes in January 2015 and provided critical evidence to take forward larger scale efficacy trials in Ebola affected countries.

MRC also provided a strategic supplement award to the MRC Human Immunology Unit Oxford (Director Vincenzo Cerundolo) to continue to develop a platform for the development of novel immune-therapeutics against emerging infections.

The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) (Director Professor Massimo Palmarini) draws together significant expertise on virology and its research programmes include the themes of emerging viruses including arboviruses, innate and intrinsic immunity to virus infection, structural virology, viral genomics and bioinformatics. CVR is playing a supportive role in the Ebola epidemic, with several members of staff working as volunteers in Sierra Leone, using their skills to diagnose Ebola virus infections.

The MRC Clinical Trials Unit (MRC CTU) at UCL has an international reputation for carrying out challenging and innovative studies.  Senior experts there have provided essential ongoing advice on the optimal design, conduct and analysis of potential trials

UK Collaborative on Development Sciences, UKCDS supported by MRC and other UK government departments and research funders has created a database of Ebola related activities as a public resource.

In December 2014 the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership EDCTP to which both MRC and DfID provide the UK partner support, expanded its scope to encompass emerging infectious diseases of particular relevance for Africa, such as Ebola and currently have calls ongoing for proposals for both diagnostics and therapies.

On March 19th 2015,  EDCTP together with the WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases TDR and MRC, launched a joint call for proposals on research and capacity development in support of the ebola virus disease (EVD) response.  Projects funded under this call are expected to contribute evidence towards increasing health system preparedness and community engagement in research and development activities during infectious disease outbreaks.

Issuing a rapid response to Zika

The Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus, related to dengue, yellow fever, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis, first identified in Uganda in 1947. In May 2015, Brazil reported the first case of Zika virus disease in the Americas. Since then it has spread rapidly with cases now reported in 23 other countries and territories in the region.

An estimated 80% of persons infected with Zika virus are asymptomatic. Symptomatic disease is generally mild, with symptoms including fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise, and headaches.

The arrival of the virus in the Americas, notably in Brazil, has however been associated with an apparent steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads and in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious neurological condition. While a causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth defects and neurological syndromes has not been established, it is strongly suspected.

When the effect of Zika began to take hold, the MRC moved quickly to help tackle the crisis and fast-track relevant research. On 1st February 2016, a rapid response scheme was launched with up to £1 million using the Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund. Researchers were invited to apply for grants to investigate the nature of the virus, its transmission and the potential links to neurological conditions including microcephaly. 

Just ten days later, this was followed by an announcement that the MRC was joining together with leading global health bodies including academic journals, NGOs, research funders and institutes, in a commitment to sharing data and results relevant to the current Zika crisis and future public health emergencies as rapidly and openly as possible.

Organisations in the announcement included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Médecins Sans Frontières, the US National Institute of Health and the Wellcome Trust, along with leading academic journals including Nature, Science and the New England Journal of Medicine, who each signed a joint declaration.

The statement is intended to ensure that any information that might have value in combating the Zika outbreak is made available to the international community, free of charge, as soon as is feasibly possible. Journal signatories also provided assurance that doing so will not preclude researchers from subsequently publishing papers in their titles.