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EU Influenza Research  

'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 and effort.

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.

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)