2005-11-30-￡40m bird flu research announcedUnderstanding Avian Influenza
2005-11-30-￡40m bird flu research announced
A ￡40m research programme into bird flu and other emerging infectious diseases is to be set up, the Medical Research Council has revealed.
It comes after the UK group visited the Far East to investigate whether there were more cases of the disease in humans than previously revealed.
So far in Asia more than 60 people have died from the deadly H5N1 strain.
But World Health Organization experts have warned there were "black holes" in the international monitoring network.
It is hoped the Medical Research Council's initiative will not only lead to valuable medical information being shared, but also the establishment of long-term relationships between scientists battling infectious diseases in different countries.
Funds will be spent on looking at how people become infected with bird flu, how the disease spreads, and whether drug-resistant strains are emerging.
There is also interest in looking at how hospitals are treating patients and which clinical approaches work best.
A team from the Medical Research Council went to China and Vietnam earlier this month amid fears that cases were going unreported.
But Sir John Skehel, director of the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research, and one of the researchers who went on the fact finding mission, said he had been persuaded that this was not the case.
Scientists fear if the H5N1 strain mutates or combines with another virus to become easily transmissible between people, it could trigger a global pandemic.
Professor Colin Blakemore, MRC chief executive, said he was hopeful the disease would not cross over into the human population this winter, and said there was no cause for panic at this stage.
Professor Blakemore is addressing MPs at the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday on the scale of the threat.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The situation certainly hasn't gone away. Infection amongst birds is certainly spreading with migration of birds as expected this year, as it has to some extent in previous years.
"Mutation could happen at any time and anywhere there are infected birds.
"We know that the virus can transmit to human beings if a mutation were to happen, or if the virus were to be recombined with a conventional seasonal flu virus.
"There's always a possibility of transition into pandemic form."
In the UK and other countries, the plan is to kill all birds in an affected area rather than take a risk with vaccines.
Thousands of birds have already been exterminated following outbreaks in Romania and Turkey.
But Dr Alan Hay, the director of WHO's influenza reference centre based in London, warned there were problems with the way the spread of the flu was being monitored.
Giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, he said authorities, particularly in China, were still reluctant to share information about the spread of the disease.
And he warned in Vietnam there were worries that the disease could be more widely spread among the human population that scientists had thought, with people carrying the infection without showing any symptoms.
Elsewhere, the systems for monitoring bird flu in countries such as Indonesia and India were "relatively poor" while there were also concerns that the disease could spread to Africa, he said.
"There are many black holes in the WHO network and the WHO has been aware of this and is trying to increase surveillance in these areas."