New hub to gather data on diseases spread by mosquitoes, ticks and other vectors

A new £1.5m hub will support the sharing of data and findings on ’vector-borne’ diseases among the UK research community and with policymakers.

The One Health Vector-Borne Diseases Hub has been awarded £1.5m funding from Defra and UK Research and Innovation, via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Imperial College London researchers will lead the UK-wide hub with partners at The Pirbright Institute , the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine , the University of Liverpool and the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology.

Vector-borne diseases (VBDs), in which infection is spread by insects, ticks, and mites, affect the health of humans, animals, and plants. They include familiar diseases like Lyme disease, bluetongue, and louping ill, which impact livestock, as well as emerging threats like West Nile virus and Usutu virus.

We are well-positioned to prepare ourselves for a future spillover or emergence event. Dr Lauren Cator

With changing climates, vectors are expected to expand into more temperate regions where traditionally we have not had to defend against these infections. This past summer, for example, Paris had to fumigate to stop an outbreak of dengue, a disease which is normally confined to tropical regions. Over the next 20 years, the risk from these types of infections is predicted to increase in the UK.

Preventing and controlling the spread of these diseases however can be difficult, as the pathogens’ lifecycles often involve several domestic and wild animal species, and they can be very sensitive to environmental conditions. The Hub leaders are therefore taking a ’One Health’ approach, which considers the impact of infections that occur in both animals and humans in an interdisciplinary way that encompasses an understanding of the role of the environment and global change.

Principal Investigator for the Hub Dr Lauren Cator , from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: "To respond to vector-borne diseases we need to be able to rapidly share data and expertise about humans, animals, the vector species which transmit pathogens between them, and the environment. This project will provide new ways for the UK community to share data and support the development of new networks for using that data to tackle this emerging challenge. We are well-positioned to prepare ourselves for a future spillover or emergence event."

Enhancing links

Co-Investigator Dr Robert Jones , from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "Changes in climate, land use, and the movement of people and animals are increasing the risks of vector-borne diseases in the UK. Despite these risks, and our world-leading programs in research and modelling, the UK lacks a centralised platform for storing and sharing data that can help us to forecast, understand and mitigate vector-borne disease threats. Through this funding we aim to enhance the links between data collection, analysis, and policy making, and ultimately strengthen our ability to protect both our human and animal populations."

In its initial phase, the Hub will focus on building infrastructure to access and disseminate data that is currently in separate silos. For example, the researchers aim to create a single access point for data relevant to agricultural animals or humans in a health context, and data on genetics and epidemiology (disease spread dynamics).

Co-Investigator Dr Christopher Sanders from The Pirbright Institute said: "Prediction and mitigation of VBD outbreaks requires diverse data from multiple disciplines. The Hub will link the VBD research community to resources and expertise to facilitate One Health approaches to combat these increasing threats to animal and human health."

Co-Investigator Dr Will Pearse , from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: "The UK has some fantastic monitoring datasets, and I’m excited to build a hub that will not just connect them, but also support forecasting and decision-making using those data. Connecting researchers and practitioners using these data and making these decisions is going to give us the capacity to respond quickly and effectively to threats."

Understanding risks

One use of the Hub will be to support those who forecast disease risk. Co-Investigator Dr Steven White , from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: "VBDs pose a significant threat to humans and animals both now and in the future. To understand these risks we need to build, parameterise, and validate cutting-edge models. This new data hub will help speed up this process and allow us to disseminate our results quickly and efficiently to the community."

Beyond modelling, the Hub will support coordination of data collection. Co-Investigator Dr Hannah Vineer , from the University of Liverpool, explained: "This resource is a brilliant example of the value of the product far exceeding the sum of its parts. With the combined efforts of the UK VBD research community, including medical, veterinary and plant sciences, the Hub will allow for rapid responses to outbreaks, and will help accelerate scientific discovery in VBD research."

The project’s second aim involves establishing crucial relationships and networks across the UK. This ensures that when an individual makes a discovery, they know the appropriate contact to reach out to.

To address this, the Hub’s leaders plan to conduct training sessions and events, to develop a web platform in collaboration with ArcTech Innovation , that facilitates connections between individuals in academia and industry, and to enhance communication within key governmental sectors.

Co-Investigator Professor Samraat Pawar , from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: "The Hub will be game changing for the UK’s ability to predict the emergence of novel vector-borne diseases driven by climate and land use change, with global impact. The Hub is a necessary step towards building the data-driven models needed to respond to these threats in a fast-changing world."