Leading UK research funders have announced £7.5 million of funding for a series of projects aimed at understanding the development and spread of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009 - or 'swine flu'. The research will look at every aspect of the virus, on pig farms, in pig and human populations, and in hospital intensive care units.

The first cases of pandemic influenza H1N1 2009 were reported in Mexico in March this year. In June, as the number of cases increased, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the spread was now a 'phase 6' pandemic, meaning that the virus had spread globally. So far, over 440,000 people have been confirmed to have been infected worldwide, with 5,700 deaths reported to WHO*.

In May and June, the UK's leading biomedical and animal health research funders - the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - together with the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), brought together leading clinical and veterinary researchers to catalyse action and a coordinated response from the research community.

Today, the outcome of those meetings is announced: a series of research projects, including four major collaborations focusing on areas such as the role of pig-pig and pig-human interactions in the development and spread of pandemic H1N1; flu transmission within households in England; and a study of hospitalised cases of severe infection. They involve leading researchers from the UK, including scientists, clinicians and veterinary researchers from Imperial College London, UCL (University College London), the University of Cambridge and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency.

The studies aim to understand how the virus mutates and jumps the species barrier and how it spreads through communities; how the virus causes disease in both pigs and humans and why it affects some individuals more than others; and which interventions are most effective at preventing infection or treating the disease. The results from each study will feed directly into wider policy analysis to ensure maximum access to and benefit from the data.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: "If we are to learn the important lessons from the current pandemic of swine flu, we need swift action, collaboration and open sharing of data within the researchers community. The UK, with its existing networks and research partnerships, is in a strong position to take a lead in monitoring and further understanding this pandemic virus as it continues to spread. This will provide essential knowledge for this and future outbreaks."

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the MRC, says: "The mild winter has so far limited the effects of the H1N1 virus; however, we're far from out of the woods. These projects are crucial to the development of a better understanding of the journey of the virus, how it develops, how it spreads and how it changes. Getting the science right and using the strength of collaboration, will ensure that from lab bench to patient bedside, we're better prepared."

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "When we are faced with diseases that can jump the species barrier, like swine flu, we cannot separate research on animals and humans. We face a single challenge from an evolving species of virus. With researchers sharing data and resources across the human and animal barrier, and funders working together in these initiatives we have a real chance to understand how swine flu originated, to use this information gathered to feed rapidly into emerging government policy and to how it is circulated in pigs and how we can prevent future pandemics.

"This is amongst the fastest I have ever seen the UK science community react to an emerging disease threat. Turning around a funding initiative in a matter of months while ensuring we are supporting the best science has been a huge achievement by the scientific community and the funders."

The major research projects are:

Principal Investigator: Dr Andrew Hayward, UCL
£2.1 million

An extension of the existing FluWatch surveillance programme, this study will follow a cohort of 10,000 individuals from 4,000 households to look at duration and severity of symptoms, access to care and treatment, effectiveness of anti-virals, uptake and effectiveness of the pandemic vaccine delivered through NHS and population behaviour changes through the pandemic and during illness. The study will enable researchers to provide monthly estimates of population infection rates in different subgroups through the pandemic, including estimates of the proportion of infections that are asymptomatic.

Comparison with the original FluWatch cohort will provide a unique opportunity to assess whether T cell responses to previous influenza strains offer protection against symptoms in those infected with the new H1N1 strain.

FluWatch is funded by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust.

Principal Investigator: Professor Peter Openshaw, Imperial College London
£2.7 million

Internationally renowned teams of scientists from England and Scotland will mount an intensive study of up to 500 people hospitalised with flu during the pandemic. The consortium will examine which host (i.e. patient) and viral factors contribute to the severity of the disease and why people with underlying health problems - as well as some previously healthy people - sometimes develop severe disease. Understanding why some people get very sick with flu will help improve clinical management and future policies for vaccination and antiviral drug use. MOSAIC builds on the UK's Clinical Research Networks and is linked to the Department of Health's clinical information network (FluCIN). Such a large-scale cooperative project has never before been attempted for pandemic influenza.

MOSAIC is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC.

£1.7million Epidemiological and evolutionary investigations of pandemic H1N1 influenza virus in pigs and associated occupational risks Principal Investigator: Professor James Wood, University of Cambridge

Transmission, infection dynamics, and immunopathology of pandemic H1N1 virus in pigs and comparability to human infection Principal Investigator: Professor Ian Brown, Veterinary Laboratories Agency Weybridge

The COSI projects are intended to develop a vital understanding of how the virus behaves in the pig population and how interaction with farm workers may help it evolve and spread. This will help to develop strategies to slow or prevent the spread of the virus in both pig herds and the human population.

Professor Wood will monitor the spread and evolution of influenza in naturally-infected UK pig herds and workers to accurately model transmission and help inform intervention strategies. Professor Brown will study the immunology of pigs and perform in vivo studies that will provide data on virus transmission and evolution that will inform models on transmission on risk. The scientists hope the research will inform whether there is a need for a vaccine for pigs to slow the spread of the virus in animals and also help design a model that could inform intervention strategies in humans. There will be additional benefits for animal welfare.

COSI is funded by BBSRC, Defra, the MRC and Wellcome Trust.

*Figure as of 25 October 2009

Source: Craig Brierley
Wellcome Trust

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