Leading veterinary scientists have warned that the long-term decline in British animal disease research must be reversed to prevent even more devastating epidemics following the foot-and-mouth crisis.
The experts, including three former heads of animal health laboratories, believe that investment is needed to restore the breadth of high-quality research into potentially catastrophic infections.
They believe that the United Kingdom may have been fortunate that the past two major animal epidemics were at a time when there were surviving areas of expertise, for example, scrapie research was put to use against BSE.
With climate change, demand for new foods and increasing movement of people, products and animals, the prospect of exotic diseases such as blue tongue, African swine fever and the tick-born theileria, reaching British shores is rising.
John Bourne, former director of the Institute for Animal Health, said research institutes had been forced to focus on fewer areas of research to maintain acceptable levels of excellence.
"As a result of funding cuts, the capability for working with the broad range of disease we had 20 years ago has gone," he said. He warned this had led to a "reduced capability to respond in a fire-brigade situation".
Lance Lanyon, principal of the Royal Veterinary College, London, said: "The amount ofdisease we are going to be challenged with is going to increase and, to my knowledge, there are no disaster plans."
He said greater coordination of research between the universities, the institutes funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was necessary.
A proposal from the six veterinary schools for a series of measures to boost research is being considered by the higher education funding councils.
Professor Lanyon said he hoped that this would help to encourage a new generation of veterinary students to take an interest in tackling infectious disease.
Ian Aitken, former director of the Moredun Institute in Edinburgh, said:
"There can be no doubt that funding for animal disease research has suffered over the past 20 years." He said that long-term research funding was desperately needed.
Peter Biggs, who presided over the merger of four research-council centres into the IAH in 1986, said: "A change in attitude is now required."