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  • Swine flu science update: 8 May 2009


Several online science databases that are normally for subscribers only have made their swine flu research free for anyone who has access to the internet.

Two of the five subscriber-only journals published by Europe's largest microbiological association, the Society for General Microbiology have made their research on the H1N1 family of influenza viruses free to view.

Richard Elliott of the UK-based University of St Andrews, who is editor-in-chief of one of the two participating publications, the Journal of General Virology, said: "It is very important to make every effort to assist the international health and microbiology community who are dealing with the current outbreak, as well as to inform the public." The other participating peer-reviewed publication is the Journal of Medical Microbiology.

The two journals, whose papers are normally under access controls for a year after publication, now offer an online search of twelve web pages listing related research dating from May 2008 and continuing through to September 2009. It is now also possible for non-subscribers to ask to be alerted to new research coming up in the next six months.

Dynamed has also made available a detailed website that includes sections on prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment, among other issues. 

Meanwhile journalists have been considering whether we are ready for the virus to do a second, more serious round of the world in a few months' time, as happened with the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people. New Scientist notes two factors that offered some protection in 1918. Firstly, those who caught (and survived) the early, mild version that swept the world developed good immunity to the second, more vicious wave. Secondly, those cities that put in place "social distancing" measures, such as isolating patients and their contacts or staggering working hours to thin out rush hour, kept the number of deaths down.  

In How severe will the flu outbreak be? a Nature correspondent says that, despite the huge obstacles to predicting future severity, scientists are managing to gather some crucial numbers such as R0, the number of infected cases that a newly infected person will give rise to.

Science magazine assesses the early actions of scientists, the WHO and others in Mexico as the disease broke out. It quotes a modeller who says it is nearly impossible for a countryto contain an outbreak of a new influenza virus.

Most vaccine production facilities, as SciDev.Net has pointed out (see Poor may lose out in swine flu vaccine production and WHO 'will ensure poor receive swine flu vaccine') are in the developed world.  Reuters AlertNet reports on a joint statement from the Association of South East Asian Nations along with China, Japan and South Korea, who say that "access to effective pandemic vaccines is a major problem in the region".

Science magazine outlines the tricky questions surrounding whether, and when, to start production of a vaccine: without better understanding of how serious the virus may become, answers are hard to find. Scientists are working on new methods of vaccine production but nothing will be ready in time for this pandemic. New Scientist goes further in an opinion piece that concludes that the flu outbreak has exposed the many weaknesses in the world's potential to respond to such a pandemic.

As SciDev.Net pointed out (see Experts highlight lack of swine flu diagnostics) lack of diagnostics is a crucial hole in the developing world's defences against a flu pandemic. Now Reuters AlertNet has published an article reviewing the diagnostic capacities across the African continent.

Finally, days before the first Mexico swine flu case was identified, Kendall Myers of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa in the USA, released online in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases a review of scientific literature documenting the previous 50 suspected or known cases of swine influenza in humans. His team warns: ''Because prior studies have shown that persons who work with swine are at increased risk of zoonotic influenza virus infection, it is prudent to include them in pandemic planning efforts.'' The researchers urge: ''As the threat of a pandemic looms, improvement in our understanding of interspecies transmission of influenza is necessary''.

Another co-author of the review, Gregory Gray, has a five-year-study underway of a 15-site American laboratory surveillance system and risk factor analysis system for emerging adenovirus strains. The National Surveillance for Emerging Adenovirus Infections is among a list of swine flu and related research projects being done by the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, available online.

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