Page last updated at 15:42 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 16:42 UK

UK lab ready to analyse swine flu

By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News


Medical Correspondent, Fergus Walsh, finds out what UK scientists are doing to combat swine flu

For years now global health experts have been warning that a flu pandemic was overdue - a new strain would emerge to which there was little immunity, causing widespread epidemics.

The fear has been that a pandemic could cause tens of millions of deaths and official predictions here suggest the death toll in the UK could range between 50,000 and 750,000.

This is why there is so much concern about the spread of swine flu, but the plain fact is that no-one knows yet whether this is the virus which will trigger the first pandemic since 1968.

One puzzling element is that there have been no deaths outside Mexico. So although the virus is spreading internationally, it is not yet a global killer.

It is possible that a new flu virus might spread worldwide causing mostly mild illness, or that it might mutate at some point and become more or less virulent.

The task ahead

In the immediate future, two important tasks faced by scientists are to develope rapid diagnostic tests for swine flu and to identify the optimum strain of flu to be used in a vaccine.

H1N1 virus
Live samples of swine flu are to arrive in UK labs imminently

The National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), in north London, is one of only five World Health Organization collaborating centres for influenza research.

In a high level containment lab, UK scientists are getting ready to receive live samples of swine flu, which they intend to analyse in the hope of combating this disease.

The samples will come from affected patients in California, and possibly Mexico and Spain.

The scientists at the NIMR will take different virus samples, grow them and infect laboratory ferrets with them.

Ferrets get flu in a similar way to humans and produce an immune response.

Scientists will analyse the antibodies found in the ferrets' blood and see whether the virus is showing signs of antigenic drift - in simple terms whether it is adapting and changing as it passes from person to person.

Seasonal vaccine protection?

Swine flu is an H1N1 virus, but it seems quite distinct from the human H1N1 strain included in the current seasonal, winter vaccine.

It is unclear whether the seasonal vaccine would give any protection.

One theory is that while it might not prevent someone getting swine flu, it could lessen its effects.

For the moment, swine flu is not a cause for alarm in Britain, and it cannot be caught from food, although raw pork should be properly cooked.

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