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UK sends flu mission to Asia

Researchers to visit China, Vietnam to encourage research cooperation

By | October 21, 2005

A group of British scientists is heading to China and North Vietnam this weekend in the hope of fostering greater international collaboration to help tackle avian influenza and other emerging infections.

Andrew McMichael, director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University, will lead the 10-day mission. One of its principal goals is to gather information about the surveillance of avian flu in China.

"We're going to the Chinese CDC and will be able to talk to scientists on the ground who we already know," McMichael told The Scientist. "We're reasonably optimistic that we will get a pretty good picture."

Avian influenza has affected bird populations in nine Asian countries--the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Indonesia, China, and Malaysia. Russia reported its first H5N1 outbreak in poultry in late July 2005, followed by reports of disease in adjacent parts of Kazakhstan and in Mongolia. This month, H5N1 was confirmed in poultry in Turkey and Romania.

Human cases have been reported in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Hong Kong experienced two outbreaks in the past—in 1997, when the first instance of human infection with H5N1 was recorded, the virus infected 18 people and killed 6 of them. In early 2003, the virus caused two infections, with one death, in a Hong Kong family with a recent travel history to southern China.

In recent years, officials have raised concerns about the reporting of avian flu cases in China. In June, for example, officials from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization told The Scientist they wanted the Chinese government to do more surveillance of the virus in birds. In 2002 and 2003, China was also accused of keeping too tight a rein on information about the outbreak of SARS.

"It would be false to suggest that China is the source of all the problems, however they have a large population and a very large bird population as well. It is certainly an appropriate place to look," MRC chief executive Colin Blakemore told reporters during a Monday press conference.

John Skehel, director of the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research, also told reporters that another goal for the trip was to examine how the disease is monitored in other countries. "How are people checking in the Far East for people who have recovered from the infection?" he asked. "Are the total number of people who have been infected the tip of the iceberg and, beneath them, are there are a lot of others who have been infected? It is an important question."

Peter Dukes, from the MRC's Infection and Immunity Board, is organizing the mission. He told The Scientist that the spirit of the visit "will very much be one of how we can collaborate…not a case of going out to tell them their business."

Dukes added that there's some "sensitivity" on the part of countries in Southeast Asia, "because they quite rightly don't see themselves as the problem—the challenge is infectious disease."

During the mission, Blakemore and his counterpart at the Chinese Academy of Sciences will sign a memorandum of understanding, which includes a clause on emerging infections, the MRC said.

Separately, Blakemore will also be talking with officials in Southeast Asian countries about extending collaboration in other research areas, including neurosciences and stem cells. That part of the trip follows other visits from UK scientists to look at stem cell sciences in Asia, including a visit funded by the Department of Trade and Industry last year.

The UK visitors are hoping to establish stronger collaborative ties with their Asian colleagues, McMichael said. Practically speaking, collaborations might include joint workshops, exchanging PhD-level researchers, and stimulating technology flow in both directions. Over time, the cooperation might evolve into a small MRC research base in a Chinese institution, he added. The MRC is putting money aside to fund these initiatives, he said. "The decision about how much will be made later in the year but it is high on the priority list for the MRC."

Participants will discuss the outcome of these missions in Asia during an international conference on the biology of influenza being hosted by the MRC in London on December 7th and 8th. During the meeting, scientists, policy-makers, and industrialists will explore the biology of the disease, its transmission and pathogenesis. Discussion will also focus on the status of vaccines and drugs to prevent and control its spread.

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