Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-02-Scientists urge global lab network to detect bird flu

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-02-Scientists urge global lab network to detect bird flu

A global network of laboratories is urgently needed to detect outbreaks of bird flu, scientists warn today.

Researchers have asked the World Health Organisation to investigate the possibility of building the labs to avert a pandemic with $1.9bn (£4.1bn) funding from developed countries, where surveillance is already in place.

The proposal comes as Tony Blair, facing questions in the House of Commons about the UK's preparedness for an outbreak of bird flu, insisted that precautions were adequate. Mr Blair added that while the discovery of bird flu in Europe made its arrival in Britain more likely, vaccinating birds would not stop the spread of the disease and risked "masking it".

Despite the assurances, Britain's most prestigious scientific organisation, the Royal Society, yesterday announced a taskforce of scientists, doctors and industry experts to examine the whether the country's policies for dealing with an outbreak are scientifically sound.

Sir John Skehel, director of the National Institute for Medical Research who is chairing the taskforce, said: "It's recognised by everybody who works in influenza that there are lots of things we don't know. Although so far the policies of all countries, including the UK, have involved scientific input, there are still things that are being discovered. We want to be sure that we use as much expertise as we can to identify any of these gaps."

The taskforce will focus on improving knowledge of how the virus might spread, and finding new targets for vaccines, and is due to report in the summer.

The proposed network of labs would play a key role in preventing the emergence of a strain of avian flu that is easily transmissible between humans.

Jean-Paul Chretien at the US Department of Defence global emerging infections surveillance and response system in Maryland and David Blazes of the US naval medical research centre detachment in Peru, called on the international community to use a disease monitoring network set up by the US military as a model for the global network. Labs in Indonesia and Egypt helped detect avian flu last summer, provided expertise in Turkey, and identified the first human case in Iraq. "The time has come to build on their experience and create a new generation of multilateral, WHO-aligned laboratories as a front-line defence against future pandemics," they write in Nature today.

In January, donor countries and the World Bank pledged $1.9bn to fight avian influenza at the international pledging conference on avian and human pandemic influenza in Beijing, money which should be diverted towards the lab network, the scientists say.

Understanding Avian Influenza