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UK scientists launch study into tackling pandemic flu

Written by: Staff

LONDON, March 2 (Reuters) British scientists today launched a study to deepen understanding of bird flu and prepare for the threat of an influenza pandemic.

The Royal Society, the country's national academy of science, and the Academy of Medical Sciences have joined forces in the study which will report its findings in the summer to global health officials and policy makers.

''This study will provide a timely analysis of the underlying science of avian and pandemic influenza,'' said Sir John Skehel, director of the National Institute for Medical Research in London who will chair the research.

He said there were lots of gaps in scientific knowledge about the H5N1 avian virus which has spread from Asia to countries in Europe, the West Asia and Africa, including Niger which is one of most impoverished nations in the world.

''We want to be sure that we use as much expertise as we can to identify the gaps,'' Skehel told reporters.

Fears about the virus heightened yesterday when a cat in Germany was reported to have died from a possible H5N1 avian virus. But Skehel and other experts said it was already known avian flu could infect tigers and that the cat's death did not increase the risk of spread in humans.

H5N1 has infected 173 people and killed 93 since 2003. But so far it has not shown it can pass easily from person to person.

Scientists fear the virus could mutate into a pandemic strain that could become highly contagious and capable of killing millions of people around the world.

The study will examine how scientific evidence can help policy makers and health officials to formulate strategies involving modelling and surveillance to prepare for a potential pandemic.

It will also look into diagnosis, infection control and transmission and the use of existing treatments such as antiviral drugs, as well as the development of new treatments and vaccines against influenza.

''One thing we hope will come out of the study is the identification of other targets for antivirals,'' Skehel said.

The experts also hope to identify the sort of changes that will be needed for the virus to move easily from person to person and the issue of vaccination.

Skehel said virus samples isolated from people who died of H5N1 in Turkey which were studied at the National Institute for Medical Research showed mutations in the virus but the impact of the changes on its virulence was not clear.

Reuters KD GC0844

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