Annual Report, 2022

Expertise network: “We are the eyes and ears on animal influenza”

Expertise networks: “We are the eyes and ears on animal influenza”
Expertise networks bring together renowned scientists to help countries tackle health challenges. OFFLU is one of them. Created jointly by WOAH and FAO, it fosters collaboration on animal influenza. Professor Ian Brown tells us more about this network.

Professor Ian Brown is a virologist and scientific services director at the Animal and Plant Health Agency of the United Kingdom. He is currently chairing the OFFLU steering committee. OFFLU is an expertise network on animal influenza.

This interview was conducted in March 2023.

Why did WOAH and FAO create an expertise network on animal influenza?

Ian Brown: In the early 2000s, the international community recognised the emerging challenge of one of the animal influenza diseases: avian influenza. As specialists of the disease, we faced huge demand for our expertise and support. We felt we needed to coordinate our efforts and form a critical mass that spoke with one voice. OFFLU was created as an independent scientific network jointly by WOAH and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Back then, avian influenza was affecting countries that had no experience with the disease. Other countries, in South-East Asia for instance, knew how to respond  locally, but they were seeking support from the international community: did they have the right diagnostics? What sort of surveillance did they need to conduct on the animal population? Did they have the right knowledge on how to control the disease? What measures did they need to implement? What was the risk for human health?

In 2022, there was a global surge in avian influenza which is still ongoing: OFFLU is more needed than ever to share and capitalise on existing knowledge of the disease.

2022 at OFFLU: sharing valuable information with all stakeholders

In 2022, OFFLU collected and shared information on the circulating influenza viruses to guide animal and human risk assessments. This information is also critical to help scientists develop seasonal flu vaccines for humans.

What kind of support can the expertise network provide to countries that are not yet equipped to fight the disease?

I. B. The expertise network positioned itself as a central repository and go-to place for stakeholders to come to with all their questions. We also act as a resource for WOAH and FAO to develop recommendations and set best practices: we issue guidance documents and participate in taskforces and missions on the ground, to help develop national capacity to deal with the disease.

Who are the experts behind OFFLU?

I. B. We are an open network, so by definition, we do not exclude anyone. At first, we were no more than about ten research laboratories. As we developed capability in regions, more partners have joined OFFLU. They are comprised of research scientists and diagnosticians, but they also carry expertise on epidemiology, surveillance, health and safety professionals, veterinarians

When the H1N1 influenza epidemic broke out in 2009, we created a subgroup on this disease which was still comparatively neglected. Other subgroups followed on equine influenza, wildlife, epidemiology and socio-economics.

Fostering collaboration through networks: an overview

WOAH encourages information sharing between labs, partners, Members, and experts in different fields to improve animal health all over the world. ©WOAH/A.Cristopher
The United against rabies network brings together cross-sectoral partners to join forces in the fight against dog-mediated rabies. ©WOAH/C.Labuschagne
The Reference Laboratory network for PPR fosters exchanges between laboratories around the world to support the eradication of the disease. ©WOAH/G.Hobgood
To improve information sharing regarding aquatic animal health, the Aquatic Middle East Network (AQMENET) was launched in 2022. ©WOAH/H.Bader
The Asia and Pacific network for aquatic animal health was launched in 2019. In 2023, similar networks will be created in Africa, Europe and the Americas. ©WOAH/P.Gaonkar

As a scientist, what do you gain from being part of such an expertise network?

I. B. These responsibilities all come in addition to my day to day job, on a voluntary basis, but they are worth it. Through OFFLU, we are the eyes and ears, across the globe, on animal influenza. We are linked to an intelligence network on what’s happening in other parts of the world: cases of the diseases, what viruses are causing it, how they change and spread, if and where they are affecting humans… Working under the OFFLU umbrella brings specialists from all over the world, each with their different insights and approaches to problems. As a collective, we get access to major grants and internationally funded programmes.

Do you speak collectively or as individual scientists?

I. B. We do both, as long as we keep our impartiality. For example, we are currently working on an initiative to map all the variations in viruses causing avian influenza. Our report will be available to the international community to think of the best choice in vaccines for poultry. Our data is useful because it is impartially gathered. Our parent organisations, WOAH and FAO, preserve our scientific freedom of speech.

Our data is useful because it is impartially gathered. Our parent organisations, WOAH and FAO, preserve our scientific freedom of speech”

Professor Ian Brown

What keeps your network going after twenty years?

I. B. It is important that each member sees the value of their contribution. The outputs of our collective analysis are shared with the network so that everyone wants to keep contributing. Having a great secretariat, such as the one WOAH provides, is vital to keep the information circulating.

What would be your advice to new scientific networks?

I. B. My advice would be to start small, with a very clear focus, so as not to overstretch your resources. People tend to work with colleagues they know and trust. We started as a core group of people who knew each other very well. Over time, as our outreach expanded, more people wanted to join. But we kept our common focus: we are here to provide countries with the best information and guidance to fight animal influenza.