Scientists warn of more work needed to fight flu pandemic

Ross Whiteford, freelance.
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BRITISH scientists have praised the government’s effort to stockpile drugs that could stave off a potentially deadly outbreak of pandemic influenza, but warn that more work needs to be done on researching a vaccine to prevent thousands of deaths.

Professor John Oxford, of Queen Mary’s School of Medicine, London, criticised Westminster in April for failing to act on pandemic advice published by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Professor Oxford now says that the Government decision to purchase 14 million courses of Tamiflu anti-viral drugs has greatly advanced British preparations for the arrival of a particularly virulent strain of flu.
The winter flu virus hits Europe every year but usually causes complications only for the elderly or very young. Pandemic flu is more serious because fewer people have immunity to it.
In 1918 “Spanish flu” killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. Pandemics in 1957 and 1968 killed roughly one million. Scientists expect that tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people would die globally in a new pandemic; with developing countries the worst hit. The Scottish Executive estimates that, at best, 10% of the population would be infected within days of a pandemic reaching our shores. At least 21,000 would die. If the virus was particularly aggressive, the death toll could be expected to reach many times that number. “At least one third” of the dead would be under 65 years of age.
“We cannot relax just because summer is coming up,” said Professor John Oxford. “A great global outbreak can appear at any time in the northern hemisphere. In 1918, they were pretty shocked to find this great wave of infection coming in the summer.”
The Executive announced in March that it had set aside £15 million to pay for 1.2 million courses of Tamiflu, manufactured by Swiss firm Roche. “Monthly deliveries of anti-viral drugs will commence in August and are due to be completed by December 2006,” said an Executive spokesman last week [15/06/05]. The spokesman refused to disclose the delivery schedule, but this reporter has learned that, due to worldwide demand for Tamiflu, Roche will deliver the UK Government order (including the 1.2 million earmarked for Scotland) at a rate of 800,000 packs per month.
Aberdeen University microbiology expert, Professor Hugh Pennington, argues that anti-viral drugs alone will not protect Scotland from a virus which could travel “at the speed of a jumbo jet.” Professor Pennington warns that anti-virals have little effect if not administered before, or immediately after, infection.
Although currently restricted to Vietnam, the H5N1 “bird flu” influenza strain is particular concern to virologists. “We’ve never known a virus, a bird virus, to do the things it’s doing,” said Professor Oxford, speaking shortly after his return from the World Vaccine Congress in Lyon, France. “[It’s] killing tigers, killing humans, at the moment on a very low scale. If it makes another mutation to become a high spreader and a lower killer, then it will begin to move fast.”
Both scientists agree that the danger posed by a fast spreading killer flu is acute. “Pandemic flu is the biggest bio-terrorist in the world,” said Professor Oxford.
“At the moment, the virus is not adept at spreading,” between human hosts, Professor Pennington said last week [16/06/05]. “If it became more transmissible, it could kill millions. There could be very serious consequences for young people: H5N1 has a mortality rate of between 60% and 80%; twice that of smallpox.”
The WHO believes that vaccination is the best form of intervention during a flu pandemic and has urged world governments to invest in research. As the killer pandemic strain has not yet emerged, experts estimate that it would take up to six months to manufacture a vaccine once the pandemic has kicked off.
“There’s a lot of virological expertise in the UK, and we’re all hoping it will be galvanised in a much better manner,” Professor Oxford told the Sunday Herald. “People are waiting to help, they are all ready to be unleashed on this problem, but no one can be unleashed until someone comes forward with some serious cash and a serious decision.”
“At the end of the day, it all boils down to money,” commented Professor Pennington.