Proper monitoring and controlling of animal diseases demand sound, high-quality research. Not only for the health of animals, but the international public health as well. Zoonoses are a serious problem. One of the most prominent research institutes devoted to animal health is the Centre de Recerca en Sanitat Animal, or CReSA in Barcelona. We talked to Joaquim Segalés, who has been the director of this renowned research institute since 2012.
Joaquim Segalés, DVM PhD, is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Animal Health at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and also director of CReSA. He has gained an international reputation with his research into viral porcine diseases such as Porcine Circovirus type 2 infections (PCV2), one of the many diseases being investigated by CReSA.
“The focus of CReSA is animal health. We conduct research into the prevention and spread of diseases, pathogenic mechanisms, immune response and the effectiveness of existing vaccines and ones undergoing development. Our institute also carries out activities in aid of human health care, such as conducting research into zoonotic infections.”
Most of CReSA’s activities involve disease monitoring and disease control. “Certainly in terms of monitoring, the development of diagnostic methods to trace pathogens and antibodies is very important. We also conduct a lot of research that is used to develop vaccine prototypes.” Joaquim Segalés feels that this fits the CReSA philosophy perfectly. “CReSA was not set up to heal diseases but to prevent them. Or in other words: to deal with diseases is not our primary aim, we want to deal with health!”
And this Catalan research institute is certainly successful at that. The CReSA researchers have developed high-quality techniques to diagnose the classic swine fever and PCV2 and play an important role in the research to prevent African swine fever.
“African swine fever is caused by a highly contagious and complex virus, for which no vaccine has yet been found. We are busy developing a vaccine, and the results so far are promising.”
Joaquim Segalés stated that African swine fever is currently one of the greatest threats for pigs in Western Europe. A number of cases of this disease have been confirmed in Poland and on the border with Belarus. “African swine fever is a very unpredictable disease carrying an enormous risk for the pork industry. You never know how this disease will manifest. But that is inherent to all diseases. Take the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV). When PEDV first appeared in 2013, no one expected that this would become such a major problem. The disease is a problem in Asia, America and now also in Europe. It certainly will be even a more severe problem if the American non-indel strains appear in Europe; high morbidity with mortality exceeding 50% in piglets has not been unusual in USA.” Along with PEDV, Segalés stressed the increase in the number of outbreaks of avian influenza especially in South France lately. This disease poses a grave threat to poultry and the public health. “The virus continues to reassort. There was recently an outbreak in the south of France which was found to be due to the new, highly pathogenic Eurasian H5N1. These types of outbreaks will occur more frequently. Despite the fact that there are vaccines that protect against most of the known strains, the continuing re-assortments of the wild virus make this protection suboptimal. Further research is urgently required. And it is important not only for the animals’ health, but also for the human one!”
“The threat of zoonotic infections is ever present,” continued Joaquim Segalés. “Look at Campylobacteriosis in poultry. The poultry do not become sick from this bacteria, but it is the number 1 cause of food poisoning in people! Campylobacter is responsible every year for more cases of disease than Salmonella, which is also a source of worry. Just looking at Europe, Salmonella is everywhere. Sound monitoring programmes have been developed that enable us to control the disease somewhat. With an emphasis on ‘somewhat’, because we are far from controlling Salmonella. It is important to keep testing both poultry and pigs for Salmonella.” Joaquim Segalés emphasised that research into zoonoses is becoming increasingly important. Especially as he sees an increasing ‘globalisation’ of zoonoses. “Along with Salmonella, avian influenza occurs around the world and could take a pandemic form. Another viral zoonosis that occurs commonly is Rift Valley Fever, which primarily infects animals but has been known to make people sick, too. And finally the MERS -coronavirus that manifested in 2012 and caused an airway infection in humans exposed to dromedaries.” In the vision of Joaquim Segalés, the controlling of zoonoses is becoming increasingly difficult given the wide variety of routes of infection and manifestations. One of the greatest worries is that zoonoses spread around the globe, as people and animals travel the world. “A zoonosis can easily spread from one continent to another in planes or aerosols in the air. Bacteria and viruses are not stopped by a passport control. Just look at the Ebola virus in Africa. In addition, global warming and the associated climate changes are an important cause of the increase in the number of zoonotic vector-borne infections. One obvious example is the Chikungunya virus that is transferred from mosquitoes to people and manifests worldwide, including in Europe.”
Given the increasing threat to public health posed by zoonoses, the development of reliable vaccines is becoming critical. And Segalés sees that as a challenge. “Who will develop these vaccines? Pharmaceutical companies whose core business is vaccines? Pharmaceutical companies are only interested in developing a vaccine if they anticipate a large market for it. So if they do not see a significant profit in a particular vaccine, they will not invest in its development. They want to make a profit after all, which is logical as well. And if a pharmaceutical company decides to develop a vaccine, then developing countries do not have the money to buy them. The WHO and OIE are aware of this problem. We always talk about one world and health for everyone: the One Health concept. But honestly we are still a long way from that goal. The global financial possibilities to conduct research into diseases and vaccines are limited. Cutbacks are being made all over, and governments are not setting aside funds to solve the complex and sometimes pressing public health problems. At the same time, those governments invest huge sums in, for example, unnecessary infrastructure. That is unbelievable! We see this also in Spain. The government paid for a number of airports that are not used … how is that possible? But there the money for research is rather limited. Even though everyone knows that research into diseases and their control can give people and animals a better and healthier future. That is why I am repeating the call made by the WHO and OIE to all international governments: take your responsibility now and invest in one world, one health!”