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Fast facts

Seasonal, avian or pandemic flu?

Seasonal flu: Each year, a new variant of seasonal flu circulates, hitting between 5% and 15% (WHO) of the world’s population. While a nuisance to most people, it is more serious for the elderly and immuno-compromised (people already sick and/or with weakened defences). Each year, the pharmaceutical industry responds by producing a new protective vaccine.

Avian flu: An infectious disease in birds but which can infect other mammals including humans. The world is currently experiencing the spread of a highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu strain. Migrating birds may be infecting domestic flocks around the world. Since its appearance in Hong Kong in 1997, H5N1 has spread across Asia to Europe, Africa and potentially further. For the first time, scientists noted cases of direct transmission of influenza to humans through close contact with infected birds.

Pandemic flu: There is no outbreak of human pandemic influenza anywhere in the world today. However, experts agree that there are clear indications that a new pandemic could arise. The 1918 flu pandemic resulted from a mutated avian flu virus. Nobody knows when an avian flu virus – most likely H5N1 – will acquire the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of a human pandemic influenza.

Are we prepared for a pandemic?

VIB lab researcher busy working on the EU's Universal Vaccine project.

At present, no effective health measure is available to protect against such a pandemic. Several drugs are available and a pandemic vaccine could be produced by industry in up to six months. Most European countries have a preparedness plan and many scientific projects, including EU-funded ones, are hard at work on new antiviral therapies and even universal vaccines giving protection against all influenza in certain groups. But there is no room for complacency: major scientific, industrial, regulatory and political hurdles have to be overcome to meet all the consequences of a potential pandemic.

What are science and EU-funded projects doing to help?

EU-supported research into avian and pandemic flu dates back to the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5, 1998-2002), with €6 million spent on a range of projects working on both human and animal influenza and other viruses. In FP6 (2002-2006), €16 million was budgeted for such research under priority themes: ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health’ and ‘Food quality and safety’ (see Projects). Research in this field should continue in FP7 which is due to start in 2007.

In December 2005, the EU made a further €20 million available for research in this important field, especially for new vaccines and antivirals to combat H5N1 (see Calls).

Download the Avian/pandemic flu background briefing
Download the Influenza in animals briefing

Media contact:
Michael Wappelhorst, Press and information officer, Research DG
EU-funded Research on Pandemic and Avian Influenza (press briefing, 7 February 2006)
Call for avian flu projects (Europa)