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Boston 2002 Monday, 18 February, 2002, 00:09 GMT
Major effort to crack flu
Virus, BBC
The flu virus: It would mean more rapid development of vaccines
Ryan, BBC

US scientists want to build a high-tech global laboratory to investigate the influenza virus.

Scientists do monitor flu, but Professor Scott Layne from the Department of Epidemiology, University of California at Los Angeles, said the proposed centre could analyse many more samples of flu more quickly than the present system.

Flu is ever-changing, so as new strains of the virus emerge, more detailed analysis could inform the more rapid development of more effective vaccines.

Instead of the 6,000 flu samples analysed by scientists under the current World Health Organization (WHO) global surveillance system, the new automated lab would be able to look at up to 100,000 samples each year.

Guessing game

Professor Layne told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston that the work of the centre would be done in co-operation with the WHO and with laboratories in the US which were producing some of the necessary technology.

Plans for the non-profit centre, including how the automated systems would work and architectural plans, are already in place. Professor Layne is now looking for the $50m he needs to fund it.

It would take around two years to get the centre up and running, and up to five years for the centre to be fully operational.

Around 250 million doses of flu vaccine are given to people each year, but predictions for which strains are going to be prevalent are made six months in advance - making it a guessing game for scientists.

Big killer

The centre would be able to look at flu strains and how they attack the body's immune system, but it would also be able, for the first time, to analyse the DNA of flu.

Scientists could also have more information about how flu moves between humans, birds, and other animals.

Although many people think flu is a routine illness, epidemics kill between 500,000 to one million people each year across the world. Estimates suggest the 1918 flu pandemic killed as many as 40 million people worldwide.

Professor Layne told the BBC: "What the global lab would do would be to allow us to make a quantum leap in the way we look at flu viruses from around the world and the viruses we choose to go forward and make vaccines with.

Reason why

"We would actually look at the genes of the flu virus. We haven't done that before; it's an entirely new area."

He said one of the mysteries about flu was that some strains made people very sick, and others did not. "Why that happens is somehow locked in the genes of the flu," he said.

If other strains of flu with the same genetic and immunological properties came along, scientists might be able to predict if a particular virus was going to make people sick or not.

Professor Layne added: "Flu is a very pedestrian virus. The ironic thing is that while being such a common disease literally from one year to the next, it could turn into a surprising killer, like the 1918 pandemic."

Prof Scott Layne
Flu is one of those diseases that can cause unimaginable destruction
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02 Dec 01 | Health
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