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Bird-Flu War Spurs World Health Agency to Lure Top Scientists
posted by admin on 07/04/06

H5N1 has infected 192 people since late 2003, killing 109, almost all who have contracted the flu by contact with birds. 

April 7 (Bloomberg) -- The World Health Organization, reacting to the threat of a lethal pandemic, is bolstering its flu-fighting team with veterans of battles against SARS and other infectious diseases. 

Virologist Frederick Hayden, a U.S. expert on influenza drugs, is joining the agency to help lead an international network of scientists studying how to treat a pandemic's deadliest cases. Paul Gully, a Canadian public health officer who fought SARS in 2003, brings expertise in crafting flu alerts for the public, world leaders and health officials. 

The two specialists will arrive this month at the Geneva- based WHO as it prepares for a potential global flu outbreak that could ``make SARS look like a walk in the park,'' said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota researcher. While the virus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, led to 774 deaths in Asia and Canada, researchers say even a mild flu pandemic may sicken one-third of people in affected regions and leave 7 million dead. 

``During SARS, we worked like hell to contain a global outbreak.'' said Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman, in a March 27 telephone interview. ``Now we're trying to feel our way through this next generation of problems.'' 

U.S. scientists warn that the H5N1 avian-influenza virus, which has infected millions of birds in the Eastern Hemisphere, may mutate into a form that can spread among humans. WHO is sending disease trackers into the field to detect a pandemic's first outbreaks; pressing vaccine makers to jumpstart programs; and spurring international debates such as whether governments should vaccinate people before the disease becomes contagious. 

Dipping Into Funds 

The agency, which asked for $20 million in donations for pandemic preparedness in November, has already spent $7 million provided by Spain, Japan, France and Norway, Thompson said. WHO has sent thousands of infection-control masks and goggles to poorer nations and has convened several conferences to plot strategy and measures. 

``Now we're dipping into other funds,'' Thompson said. ``Hopefully as more money comes in, we'll be able to carry on more activities.'' 

The agency's record is ``impressive,'' said Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Webster helped identify bird flu in 1997 and has been warning of a potential pandemic ever since. 

``Over the years, the influenza program has done a magnificent job on a shoestring,'' he said in an April 4 telephone interview. 

New Leadership 

The responsibility of preparing for a human pandemic is falling to a recently recruited leadership group that's ``definitely more active and more vocal'' as a result of the agency's SARS experience, said William Steiger, a U.S. Health and Human Services Department international affairs specialist, in a March 30 interview. ``They're doing much more in the way of technical work and rapid response to disease.'' 

The increased urgency comes as H5N1 has spread halfway around the globe since 2003. Health officials confirmed today that the virus was found in a swan in the U.K., and have predicted it will reach the U.S. this year. Hundreds of millions of birds have been culled to slow the spread. 

H5N1 has infected 192 people since late 2003, killing 109, almost all who have contracted the flu by contact with birds. 

Even after the additional help arrives at WHO, more health experts will be essential to prepare countries and industries for the shock of a pandemic, said Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. The agency should also be gearing up to oversee the use of supplies of drugs, food and other resources when a pandemic hits, he said. 

`Woefully Undersupported' 

``Imagine trying to move influenza-related drugs or vaccines around the world during a pandemic,'' Osterholm said. ``WHO has to be the primary arm of response. I think they're woefully undersupported for this activity.'' 

Most of the countries hit by bird flu outbreaks don't have the funds or expertise to respond, Bernard Vallat, Director General of Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, said March 21 at a conference in Atlanta. The $1.9 billion that richer nations have promised to donate or loan poorer countries may still not be enough, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said March 29. 

To make certain the limited resources are used effectively, WHO officials say they are recruiting infectious disease experts from around the world. 

``This is an elite team of people,'' said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who advises the U.S. government on flu issues. 

Tamiflu Tester 

The WHO pandemic flu team includes Lee Jong-Wook, 60, who began a five-year term as director-general in 2003; Keiji Fukuda, named head of the global influenza program in January; Margaret Chan, who became the bird flu coordinator last year; and now Hayden and Gully. 

Hayden, 58, a virologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, performed the original tests last year showing that Roche Holding AG's Tamiflu is effective against an H5N1 infection. Hayden said he is taking a leave from the university to help scientists identify ways to treat people with avian influenza and severe cases of regular, seasonal flu. 

Hayden's ``clinical expertise in influenza is second to none,'' Memphis virologist Webster said. The Hayden hire shows ``they're putting together a really powerful group of people,'' Webster said. 

Gully, a physician who received public health training in the U.K., was named deputy chief public health officer for the Public Health Agency of Canada in Ottawa in 2004. During the SARS epidemic in 2003 he was responsible for translating the latest research and clinical findings into guidance for medical and non- medical people about treatments, quarantines and other public health actions. 

New Flu Chief 

The U.S. has depended heavily on Canada for advice in devising its pandemic plans, mainly because of its experience with SARS, HHS's Steiger said. 

Fukuda, 50, replaced veterinarian Klaus Stoehr as head of WHO's effort to reduce the spread and severity of influenza. Where Stoehr had focused on getting pandemic vaccines into production, Fukuda has said he wants to reduce people's vulnerability to infection in the event a pandemic breaks out. 

Key to that effort is better testing and surveillance for outbreaks in poorer African countries, Fukuda said. At a conference on infectious diseases near his Atlanta home last week, Fukuda said that he wants to equip African laboratories to test for H5N1 and other forms of influenza. 

`Recruiting Laboratories' 

``We are actively planning on recruiting laboratories that will be able to do the testing,'' he said in an interview. WHO will use funds pledged at a January conference in Beijing to provide the labs with needed equipment and training, he said. 

Fukuda, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, came to the WHO in August through a process that permits global institutions to borrow personnel for specific times or tasks. Fukuda helped fight smaller outbreaks of lethal bird flu as well as SARS and is considered one of the premier influenza epidemiologists. 

His skills may be particularly useful as WHO struggles to maintain relationships with countries, such as China, that have been hesitant to share information about disease outbreaks. 

``He can work with the Chinese perhaps better than anyone else in the world,'' St. Jude's Webster said. ``Getting them to cooperate can be extremely difficult. Fukuda is as good as anyone else at doing this sort of thing: cool and calm.'' 

Numerous Challenges 

Chan, 58, resigned her post in 2003 as director of health for Hong Kong, which reported 1,755 cases of SARS, second-highest after China, including 299 deaths. As WHO's senior avian influenza coordinator, she faces numerous challenges in determining how to protect public health in poorer countries already affected by bird flu and most likely to be hurt by an outbreak of lethal human influenza. 

One of her first jobs is to get more researchers into the field. As an example, the WHO ran 17 missions to investigate disease outbreaks last year, and eight in February alone, Chan said in a speech in Atlanta March 20.

To contact the reporter on this story:
John Lauerman in Boston at

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