UK-led project to tackle deadly diseases

Two of the UK’s most highly experienced scientific organisations will pool their resources to combat deadly pathogens.

The Pandemic Sciences Institute (PSI) at the University of Oxford and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) have pledged to work jointly to study the dangerous pathogens that could cause future pandemics. The pathogens represent a threat to global health and security, whether naturally occurring or used as a weapon.

The requirement for national highly secure containment (Category 3 and 4) laboratories has never been greater. These high containment facilities are expensive to maintain yet pivotal to UK security and resilience. The University of Oxford has established the Pandemic Sciences Institute (PSI) to ensure the world is better equipped to prepare for, identify and counter future pandemic threats, including pathogens that require high containment facilities for their research. Dstl has high containment capabilities and extensive experience handling high consequence pathogens.

Dstl and PSI have complementary Research and Development objectives into understanding and mitigating the threat of current and future pathogens. The recent successful collaboration between the 2 organisations on how a lateral flow device for mpox (monkeypox) could work, is a clear indication of effective joint research and the application of Dstl’s prior research investment to an immediate public health need.

The agreement will provide PSI with access to Dstl’s high containment laboratories to enable it to work with high threat viruses included in the UK Government priority pathogen list. Dstl will gain from access to external expertise with the potential for staff secondments and joint mentoring.

The initial focus of collaboration will be on the Nipah virus which can spread between animals (bats and pigs) and people. The virus is most prevalent in parts of Asia, primarily Bangladesh and India, with a high mortality rate and currently no approved vaccines or treatments. PSI and Dstl may jointly fund a PhD programme for up to 4 years to better understand how the virus infects its host, with a view towards developing new antiviral treatments.

Other work may include:

  • research into the development of medical countermeasures for known and unknown high priority threats and their broader pathogen families
  • collaboration on non-high containment pathogens
  • joint applications for funding programmes

Simon Earwicker, Head of Dstl’s Chemical, Biological and Radiological Division, said:

The UK has a significant pool of expertise in hazardous pathogen research. Working jointly will enable us to maximize the impact of this capability and develop a future stream of qualified personnel. We’re very excited with the opportunities this will provide for our staff to work alongside internationally-recognised experts to study life-saving treatments and vaccines.

Professor Sir Peter Horby, Director of the Pandemic Sciences Institute, said:

This new partnership will accelerate vital research on dangerous emerging pathogens, such as Nipah virus, that cause death and disease in many parts of the world and threaten global health security. Working together in this way, with access to high containment labs and sharing skills and expertise between our organisations, will help ensure the world is better prepared to counter future pandemic threats.

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