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Top virus expert launches investigation

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A leading virus expert has said that anyone claiming a human pandemic of bird flu is inevitable "is saying more than they can possibly know".

Sir John Skehel made his comments at the Royal Society in London, at the launch of the society's new joint investigation with the Academy of Medical Sciences into the science behind the disease. Part of the mission will be to find out how many and what sort of changes bird flu would need to make to hit human populations.

Since first appearing in Hong Kong in 1997, H5N1 has made it as far as France without developing the ability to pass fom human to human.

It's known the virus would have to mutate or combine with another in order to make the species leap. So far, the two mutations in H5N1 detected from infected people in Turkey have only served to weaken the strain, Sir John explained.

He offered El Reg an alternative to a human pandemic doomsday scenario, though not ideal itself given how deadly the disease is in poultry: that it will remain in birds long-term.

The cross-disciplinary group will report in Summer with advice on short-term UK policies, examining in detail "how closely they are based on science". Improving the models of the disease's spread is a likely outcome.

Reviewing available data on H5N1 and other strains, the panel also hopes to signpost longer term research strategies. The ambition is to identify possible targets for anti-viral therapies, of which there are currently very few. South-East Asian reports that bird flu has developed resistance against the leading weapon, Tamiflu, have worried clinicians.

As ever, prevention is better than cure, and an ultimate aim would be a broad-spectrum flu vaccine that could guard against future outbreaks of avian infuenza. Birds act as a "reservoir" for the influenza virus, where it can continue to evolve into new forms.

Sir John is director of the National Institute for Medical Research Lab at Mill Hill, which has become a global centre for testing for the H5N1 strain. He explained: "No doubt many countries are ill-equiped to characterise viruses in the detail we would like."

Vaccination programmes in China have been effective, he said, since the jabs are manufactued from up-to-date strain, though he expressed concern that the French have been using supplies of a vaccine made from the related but different H5N2 flavour.

In response to a question regarding today's reports of the sad demise of a German cat from H5N1, Sir John stoutly advised UK pet owners to remain calm. ®

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