Moredun Research Institute leads a GWCT supported project to develop a new vaccine
Although the characteristic ‘leaping’ signs of louping ill disease in Scottish sheep have been described for centuries, it wasn’t until the first half of last century that it was associated with tick-borne viral transmission. Louping ill virus (LIV) can be found in sheep, cattle, red grouse and ticks in moorland areas of Britain, particularly in Scotland, northwest England, Wales and Devon. Unmanaged, it causes major economic losses to both upland farming enterprises and moorlands managed for red grouse. There is some evidence that milder winters and wet summers have contributed to an increase and spread of ticks.
There is no treatment once an animal has LIV, but preventative vaccination of sheep has been effective. However, vaccine production stalled in 2017 and was unavailable from the following year. Current strategies to combat LIV have been based on acaricide treatment as part of management plans. In the absence of an LIV vaccine, serious losses have been reported in both sheep and red grouse.
Dr Beth Wells at the Moredun Research Institute confirmed: “We have had many reports from our hill farming members that they have been losing sheep, mainly ewe hoggs, to louping ill, some losing up to 25% of their replacement females, which is a serious loss. We already have successful partnerships with GWCT and are delighted they have joined us in a new project to work towards a novel vaccine for louping ill control.”
Dr Adam Smith of Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Scotland said: “We are delighted that the funds to assist this project were available through the Scottish Government for early stage work. GWCT was very pleased to help raise additional support through Scottish landowners for the vaccine trial itself. We are delighted with the level of support and the keen interest shown by all the donors for this project which has benefits for farming and moorland conservation.”
COVID-19 has done its best to interrupt proceedings, but the Moredun team is all ready for vaccine production as soon as it is allowed back in the lab. Once the team can produce the virus particles, the Scottish Government funded model optimisation experiment can start, followed by the vaccine trial itself. The current plan is to begin the vaccination trial before the end of 2020, with key results following soon after that.
As well as presentations to Moorland Management Groups and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, a press release was issued and the story was run by the Farmers Guardian, Veterinary Times, Scottish Farmer, The Countryman's Weekly and many more Scottish titles.
A plan to hold an August meeting of donors at the Moredun’s facility on the Bush Estate, Midlothian, has had to be postponed, but a decision will be taken after Easter on whether a meeting could be held later this year, when the further need for social distancing may be clearer.