The expression ‘prevention is better than a cure' is a truism when it comes to vaccine research. European scientists in various EU-funded projects are hard at work developing new vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tools against some of the deadliest and most virulent viruses, including strains of avian flu.
The spread of ‘bird flu' to and across Europe's borders has mobilised scientists and politicians into action. Recently, in Brussels, experts gathered to assess what further research is needed to develop preventive, but also curative, measures against the avian and possible human pandemic influenza. The experts concluded that “extraordinary research effort” is required, and fast.
|“Extraordinary research effort” called for by EU scientists to tackle avian flu and its kind.|
“There are various strains of the avian influenza virus and the high pathogenic strains, such as the H5N1 virus, have almost 100% fatality rates [in poultry],” notes the Commission's dedicated influenza website. “Wild birds are often carriers of avian influenza viruses without showing any symptoms, and contact between domestic flocks and wild birds has been at the origin of several epidemics in poultry.”
On the frontlines of this battle, scientists funded by the EU's Framework Programmes for research are working hard to ensure that human epidemics don't follow. And projects, such as FLUPLAN, have already shown promising results. Influenza experts from Italy, Norway and the UK, working with researchers at Sanofi Pasteur in France, have developed a human candidate vaccine for pandemic human flu targeting H7N1, a virus typically infecting birds.
The team says that H7's chances of turning into a pandemic human flu are lower than its highly infectious, news-making H5N1 cousin, but nevertheless constitute a serious threat as well. The project's results, published in an October issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, are a valuable source of new technologies for use against future viral pandemics.
On the wings of research
The Commission has backed a number of ongoing research activities in this area. Projects, such as AVIFLU, NOVAFLU, FLUAID and FLUPLAN, are all – in their own ways – looking to prevent and/or control the spread of influenza in various forms. LAB-ON-SITE is working on improving the diagnosis of some of the major viral diseases affecting livestock, as listed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), including avian flu.
HEALTHY POULTRY is developing integrated strategies for preventing and monitoring outbreaks of poultry diseases like the avian flu. A network, called VIRGIL, is monitoring emerging resistance to anti-viral drugs in influenza. Another, named EPIZONE, is boosting research and preparedness for epizootic disease diagnosis and control in general, while ESNIP 2 is focusing on pig flu, in particular.
Meanwhile, the VIZIER project is sequencing and crystallising the ‘replication machinery' of more than 200 RNA viruses in order to design new antiviral drugs for blocking their replication and, thus, limiting their virulence and spread. The project includes avian and human influenza strains, and also many other human pathogenic viruses like SARS, haemorrhagic fever and Ebola viruses.
Other research contracts are under negotiation or being planned in new calls for proposals under the next Framework Programme, due to start in 2007. These important research activities are part of an overall set of measures undertaken by the Commission in order to tackle not only avian influenza and the potential emergence of pandemic strain in humans, but other viruses in animals which can threaten human populations.
According to a Commission statement, fighting these diseases needs to be tackled at the source (in the animals themselves). At the same time, a major effort is needed to protect humans with high-performance pandemic influenza vaccines.