Researchers from the UK and India, including a team from the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS), have jointly developed a ‘smart’ vaccine which has the potential to help eradicate goat plague. The disease causes losses of billions of dollars a year.

Goat plague, or peste des petits ruminants (PPR), is a highly contagious viral disease that afflicts goats and sheep in many parts of the country. The disease kills small ruminants in large numbers unless they are vaccinated. According to the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), PPR costs farmers anywhere between $1.4-2.1 billion a year globally. Apart from India, goat plague is prevalent in many African countries, West Asia, China and Mongolia.

“Goat plague was a big problem in India till recently. But now we have been able to control it to a large extent using conventional live vaccines developed by us as well as the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Now the outbreaks are less frequent in India,” said G Dinakar Raj, a veterinary scientist at TANUVAS. In live vaccines weakened virus is used to stimulate immune response in vulnerable animals.

The next stage for countries like India where outbreaks are under control is eradication of the virus. “Just like we have eradicated Rinderpest, cattle plague, from the world in the past,” said Raj. This is where the collaborative work between the Indian and UK scientists is significant, he said.

Under a joint collaborative research programme supported by UKRI’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and India’s Department of Biotechnology, scientists from both countries joined hands to develop a smart vaccine for goat plague, which the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation identified as one of the global grand challenges to be tackled. While the UK scientists were from Pirbright Institute, their Indian collaborators were from four different institutions including TANUVAS and IVRI.

The major contribution from British scientists was providing a template for developing a smart vaccine, which is also called DIVA vaccine. “It is one of the first smart PPR vaccines that help distinguish between animals which are vaccinated and infected, which is impossible with conventional live or killed virus vaccines, Melanie Welham, the Executive Chair of BBSRC, told BusinessLine. This is because these vaccines induce immune response which is different from that induced by natural infection, she said.

“The contribution of our team at TANUVAS was to measure varying degree of natural resistance that different Indian breeds of sheep and goats have for the virus. After all, India is said to have the highest diversity among goat species. We found that some indigenous breed like Kanni and Salem Black have higher resistance against PPR virus as compared to Barbari and Tellichery goat breeds.

“The DIVA vaccine is ready for use, but it has to go through regulations. We have tied up with the Hyderabad-based Vivimed Labs. Now it is for the company to take it up through the regulatory pathway,” he said.