'Bird flu' brief - getting the facts straight
Europe’s science and health press were invited
to Belgium for a full-day background briefing, including several
laboratory visits, on scientific efforts to combat the growing
avian and pandemic flu (APF) threat.
On 7 February, around 100 journalists and film crews were
taken to labs in the Flemish cities of Gent and Leuven, where
they learned not only about the nature and potential threat
of APF, but also what the EU has been doing, since 2000, to
handle this eventuality.
The world’s media has shown growing interest in this
viral foe since human cases of H5N1 – the highly pathogenic
strain of avian flu principally infecting wild and domestic
bird populations – started appearing on Europe’s
door in December last year. Responding to the news that ‘bird
flu’ is spreading across Turkey (and now towards the
continent and Africa) the EU released a further €20 million
for APF-focused research and the Commission’s Research
DG stepped up planning for its press briefing in February.
EU scientists and policy-makers spoke to the press about
the range and depth of EU-funded initiatives and research
projects working on APF and other virus-related topics. Commission
official Octavi Quintana said he is convinced that the only
way to tackle influenza is with long-sighted research, offering
European efforts as a case in point. Up to 70% of the vaccines
are produced in Europe, he said, and breakthrough drugs and
treatments often come when there is a critical mass of funds
Critical mass for a critical disease
Indeed, this critical mass started building with the Fifth
Framework Programme (FP5, 1998-2002) which allocated €6
million to 22 institutions and national reference labs in
eight countries working on AFP. In FP6, more than €16
million was budgeted for such research within priority areas
covering ‘Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology
for health’ but also ‘Food quality and safety’.
Now, with the additional €20 million freed up for AFP
projects (responding to the January call for proposals), new
vaccines and antivirals to combat H5N1, improved diagnostics
and early warning systems, as well as analysis of the ecology
and pathogenesis of avian flu will be possible.
Already, EU-funded projects and networks – such as
Aviflu, Novaflu, Virgil and a dozen more presented to the
journalists – are making valuable discoveries and carrying
out essential surveillance of flu and other viruses.
In fact, the EU has reacted quickly to this threat, according
to Novaflu’s John Oxford of Queen Mary School of Medicine
at the University of London (UK). “Europe is the epicentre”
of this most important research,” he suggested. Research
that requires the sort of concerted effort being seen through
EU-backed projects and networks.