Bird flu plans ‘need updating’

Scientists have criticised the government’s preparations for an outbreak of bird flu, saying they fail to take into account the latest technological developments.

A new report from the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences warns ministers must reconsider their plans to stockpile just one antiviral drug and calls for closer cooperation with scientists to prepare a vaccine.

To this end, it recommends the appointment of an independent scientific advisor to work on preparations for a possible outbreak of the HN51 strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 150 people since December 2004.

Opposition parties called on the government to take action, but the Department of Health (DoH) said it was already addressing many of the Royal Society’s concerns.

In their study, the scientists praise the UK for being one of the most prepared countries for bird flu, and welcomed the government’s early decision to order stockpiles of one antiviral drug, Tamiflu.

However, working group chairman John Skehel said the focus on just one drug “is a major concern”. He warned new evidence suggested that HN51 could develop a resistance to Tamiflu, and showed a combination of drugs should be stockpiled.

“The government was right to order Tamiflu in early 2005. However, we are concerned that it is not updating its plans as the landscape of what we know about influenza changes,” he said.

Sir John said the appointment of an independent flu specialist to advise cabinet ministers would ensure they received the latest scientific evidence and would complement the existing roles of chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

Today’s report also warns that aside from procuring new drugs, the DoH’s relationship with the scientific and pharmaceutical community is “inadequate”. This is a particular problem given the work needed to help develop a bird flu vaccine.

It is unlikely that any government could manufacture enough vaccines for a pandemic, but supplies can be stretched by combining drugs with compounds known as adjuvants.

“Encouraging researchers and drug manufacturers to share information would speed up the development of adjuvants and vaccines to make the UK more responsive during a pandemic,” Sir John said.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said the government must ensure the UK was ready for a pandemic of flu on the scale of the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu – something he believed was a “major risk”.

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Steve Webb added: “We cannot wait until after a case has been discovered to check if our contingency plans are the most effective to deal with this potential threat.

However, professor Lindsey Davies, the DoH’s director of pandemic influenza preparedness, said: “We do keep our pandemic preparedness planning under constant review with the advice and assistance of our scientific advisory group.

“Our antiviral strategy is informed by international consensus and expert advice, and the current stockpile should be adequate to treat all those who fall ill in a pandemic of similar proportions to those in the 20th century.”