'Ground-breaking' bovine TB vaccine trials are set to get underway in England and Wales as a result of a major breakthrough by government scientists.
It's hoped that a vaccine for cattle could be made commercially available by 2025.
The field trials will be conducted over the next four years on behalf of Defra, the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government, and follow 20 years of research into bovine TB vaccines and diagnostic tests.
Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that England and Wales face today.
More than 40,000 cattle are slaughtered each year due to the disease.
A vaccine is one of several key elements of the long-term bovine TB strategy to eradicate the disease in England by 2038.
Measures include plans to phase out intensive badger culling in England, improve the cattle testing regime and vaccinate more badgers against the disease and improved testing to intercept bovine TB earlier.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease which can cause considerable trauma for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly prized animals and valued herds.
"This scientific breakthrough is a major step forwards in our battle to see the disease eradicated from this country.
As wider preventative measures, like cattle vaccines, are introduced, we will accelerate other elements of our strategy and start to phase out badger culling in England, as no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.
UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said: "The Animal Plant and Health Agency’s ground-breaking research has been pivotal in developing this potential vaccine.
"Whilst there is no single way to combat this damaging and complex disease, cattle vaccination is a potential new tool for our multi-pronged approach to tackle it and importantly prevent it, providing vital support to our farming communities.
Bovine TB presents a global challenge and the UK has harnessed its world-leading science to develop potential solutions such as vaccination and new diagnostic tests that could also be valuable to other countries."
Development of a deployable TB vaccine for cattle was a top priority outlined in the government’s response to an independent review of its 25-year bTB strategy, led by Prof. Sir. Charles Godfray.
The response to the Godfray Review set out plans to phase out intensive culling in the next few years, and outlined the need for a combined approach which includes badger and cattle vaccination to eradicate the disease in England by 2038.
'An absolute game-changer'
British Veterinary Association junior vice-president James Russell said the deployment of a viable cattle vaccine used in combination with a validated DIVA test has the potential to be an "absolute game-changer".
"This is something that our own expert bTB working group’s upcoming report has identified as a key priority," he said.
"These field trials mark the culmination of years of ground-breaking research and efforts by the veterinary scientific community to expand the range of tools available to vets and farmers to tackle bovine tuberculosis."
The latest figures show that in England the total number of new herd incidents of the disease is down by 9% in the last year (to November 2019) - a 10% reduction in the number of herds not officially free of the disease and a 4% reduction in the total number of animals slaughtered due to the disease.
Farmers’ Union of Wales senior policy officer Dr. Hazel Wright explained that in 2019, more than 12,000 cattle in Wales were slaughtered because of bTB.
“The start of vaccine trials represents many years of research and development into bovine TB vaccines and diagnostic tests. We hope to be informed as the research continues and we will await the results of the trial with great interest," Dr. Wright said.
“Cattle vaccination continues to be one of the tools in the toolbox that have, so far, been unavailable to our members and we welcome the news that work on this aspect of bovine TB control is moving forward."