Several factors suggest that H5N1, the virus responsible for the bird flu outbreaks in South-East Asia since 2000, could cause the next viral pandemic, killing millions of people around the world.
Scientists, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organization agree on this. But researchers in South-East Asia say the international community underestimates the scale of the threat and is not reacting accordingly.
According to this report in Nature by Peter Aldhous, local and foreign researchers in Vietnam are complaining that, after the initial flurry of activity caused by last year's epidemic, the international research and health community has deserted the region, leaving countries like Vietnam to scrounge for funding.
The research needed to avoid a pandemic is considerable. Human blood samples must be screened for signs of immunity against the disease; the same must be done for poultry and migratory birds; and H5N1 itself needs to be monitored, to see how it is changing and what this means for human and animal health.
But the initial crisis responses to bird flu outbreaks do not support this type of research, and applying for money through normal funding channels takes a long time. Some productive collaborations between East and West have emerged but many more, and more funding, are needed if the world is to prepare for the next pandemic.
Reference: Nature: 433, 105 (2005)