News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

MPs accuse Medical Research Council of panic over bird flu

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 08 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1358

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Michael Day
  1. London

    The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) has had to fend off accusations in parliament that it had done too little too late to tackle the threat of a flu pandemic. It came under fire while reporting to the House of Lords select committee on science and technology on 30 November.

    Colin Blakemore, the MRC's chief executive, denied suggestions by Phil Willis (Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough), the committee chairman, that last month's visit had been a “kneejerk reaction to the media.”

    During his evidence to the committee, Professor Blakemore said that planning for the trip had begun a year ago. But Mr Willis insisted, “There is an impression that there has been some sort of panic within the MRC in terms of dealing with the threat of avian flu. Back in 1997 the first cases of H5N1 were discovered in Hong Kong, with six fatalities. There seems to have been a long lead-in time to this, and yet there is a huge amount of activity in the last few months. Is it your job to look ahead?”

    Professor Blakemore said, “It is both unfortunate and unfair if you think that the MRC's response has been one of panic. Panic among the public two or three weeks ago was being fuelled by media interest, which has passed like the Indian summer. Outside the blaze of publicity, the MRC has been planning and developing its strategy and changing its tactics in response to the situation over at least the past year.”

    One of Professor Blakemore's colleagues, Alan Hay, who heads the joint MRC and World Health Organization World Influenza Centre in north London, however, admitted to the committee that there had been a “low key response” to the original deadly outbreak of H5N1 eight years ago for reasons that were “not so obvious.”

    Although the MRC's scientists found no evidence that human cases of H5N1 were being deliberately concealed, Dr Hay said that the trip had confirmed fears that the Chinese authorities were still restricting foreign agencies' and researchers' access to information. “The interaction could clearly be better in terms of information transfer. Clearly the information we get is less than we would like,” he said. He added that a number of “black holes” remained in WHO's surveillance of avian influenza in South East Asia, particularly in remote areas.

    Dr Hay said that there were concerns about widespread subclinical infection in Vietnam, but that the difficulty in obtaining human serum samples there had made this difficult to confirm.

    None the less, Professor Blakemore said that building links with China made sense because the country had considerable scientific expertise, and links with Vietnam were useful because that country had seen the largest number of human cases of H5N1.The full findings of the trip were discussed at an international workshop of influenza experts in London last week.

    Also last week, the MRC announced a £10m ($17m; £15m) research programme into bird flu and other emerging infectious diseases. Professor Blakemore told the committee that the component spent on influenza research would go on new approaches to antiviral drugs, vaccines, immunotherapies, and clinical studies. “There are many areas where we think there could be quick and innovative developments,” he said.

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