Farrar urges better risk management of flu virus

Pharmaceutical companies need to adopt a more proactive approach to managing the risk of influenza viruses that exist in the animal kingdom, according to the incoming chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to Jeremy Farrar, countries ranging from the United States and Britain to France and Japan have suffered record losses of poultry in outbreaks of avian flu in the past year.

The recent spread to mammals of H5N1 – commonly known as bird flu – needs to be monitored, but the risk to humans remained low, the WHO said earlier this month.

Now Farrar has added his voice to the debate, saying he would like to see the pharmaceutical industry at least conduct some clinical trials for all influenza strains such that the world would not have to start from scratch to initiate global manufacturing should the need arise.

“My concern that we’re in slow motion watching something which may never happen,” he added in a media briefing. “But if it were to happen, would we look back on what we’re doing at the moment and say, why didn’t we do more?”

Farrar is a clinical scientist who most recently served as the director of the Wellcome Trust, and was appointed the WHO’s new chief scientist in December.

His comments come as the new H5N1 avian influenza strain has spread through birds across every continent except for Australia and Antarctica, killing hundreds of millions of wild and farmed birds globally in the past year.

Significantly, it now appears to have spread to mammals, with authorities confirming that  four dead seals in Scotland died last year of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), with some 70 other mammals including otters and foxes have tested positive for the strain of the virus.