Bluetongue virus (BTV) is a highly pathogenic virus that affects ruminants and has a mortality rate in sheep of up to 70%. It’s an arbovirus, meaning it’s transmitted by insects, in this case Culicoides biting midges.
Only the minority of cases develop the blue tongue for which the virus was named. It’s a result of damage to blood vessels and tissue swelling, which reduce the amount of oxygenated blood reaching the tongue, leading to cyanosis.
The virus was first described in Africa in the late 18th Century and has since been identified in Australia, the United States, Asia and Europe. In 2007/8, the virus reached the UK from Europe when infected midges were blown across the English Channel.
Although the virus was eradicated after that outbreak, the UK remains on high alert for it re-occurring. There are vaccines available, but a major challenge for virus diagnosis and control is that there are 27 distinct serotypes.
Our research and its impact
Professor Peter Mertens has focused his research on BTV for many years. While at the Pirbright Institute, his group developed the diagnostic assays and molecular epidemiology systems that were used to identify and track virus movements during recent bluetongue outbreaks in Europe. This played an important part in the eradication of the virus from the UK in 2008.
Peter also played a central role in determining the atomic structure of the bluetongue virus core particle. He’s currently coordinating major European Union Horizon 2020 funding on bluetongue virus along with Professors Jonathan Ball and David Haig.