An interview with Dr Sharon Brookes

June 2020

Sharon Brookes is Head of the Avian Virology and Mammalian Influenza, Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, she tells us more about her research which focuses on endemic and exotic viral disease pathogens and arboviruses.

Sharon Brookes
© Sharon Brookes

Tell us more about your research.

I am the Lead Scientist for Virology at the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) and am responsible for the Animal and Zoonotic Viral Diseases Portfolio (AZVDP). Viruses are a key element of the global microbiomes – animal, human, arthropods, plants, land and sea water, soil etc. We are only beginning to understand the interplay between different types of microbes, and between them and their hosts, both detrimental and beneficial.

We, around 90 members of the Virology Department at APHA, carry out research and development activities that underpin the UK surveillance and diagnostics, on an extensive range of endemic and exotic viral disease pathogens. This includes around 30 key viruses, plus capability for many more (60–70 viruses), of livestock, wildlife and companion animals. A proportion of these viruses are also zoonotic (capable of infecting humans) so One Health on a global scale is key to our work: Rabies acquired abroad (exotic, carnivore origin), endemic viruses such as bat rabies (Lyssaviruses), Hantaviruses of rodent origin, animal influenza A viruses of swine or avian origin, and some hepatitis E viruses of pig origin.

We also carry out research on a number of arboviruses that are a One Health risk: West Nile Virus (bird origin also affecting horses), Equine Encephalomyelitis Viruses and Rift Valley Fever virus. With climate change there is an increased risk that these threats may occur in the UK.

Why is this research important?

We have a breadth of expertise that allows us to respond to new and emerging viral hazards e.g. ‘swine ‘flu in 2009 when its pandemic potential was not known, the incursion of Schmallenberg virus in 2011 (unknown human susceptibility on emergence) and the appearance of novel avian influenza A virus strains (H5Nx, H7Nx, H9N2).

Why does understanding viruses matter to microbiology?

Understanding viruses matters to microbiology because they are part of biodiverse biomes and although scientists have eradicated a very small number – many are controlled but also re-emerge as continuing or novel threats. They can be utilised to control infectious diseases and help to achieve sustainable food supplies. 

How are you adapting to learn more about these types of viruses?

We adapted our skills whenever a new variant of our main pathogens evolves, RNA viruses in particular change a lot; evading vaccines and change host species. We also use our expertise to assist with globally emerging viruses such as the outbreak responses for Ebola; APHA sent trained staff to Africa to provide laboratory services and we enabled the UK to have an animal quarantine facility if pets were exposed by human cases in the UK.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].