Transparency on avian influenza virus strains: the OIE/FAO OFFLU network

The Avian Influenza crisis has focused the attention of the international community over several years now, disclosing alternatively scientific, economic and political issues.

Recently, at the G8 Summit, surveillance and monitoring of infectious animal diseases and zoonoses was supported and encouraged by world leaders, along with the need to strengthen veterinary services worldwide, build up laboratory capacities and capabilities, share virus strain samples between countries and focus on work with relevant international organisations in the mitigation of animal and public health emergencies.

Sharing virus strains, samples and sequences is a critical part of the global work on the surveillance and control of infectious diseases including avian influenza. The joint OIE/FAO Influenza Network (OFFLU) has been established precisely with a priority objective of improving the knowledge, following up and sharing of H5N1 virus strains between human health and animal health laboratories and OIE/FAO reference laboratories worldwide, promoting gene sequencing and publishing the gene sequences in public data bases.

This provides vital scientific knowledge for authorities and organisations seeking to control the disease in poultry, and to prepare for the possibility of a human pandemic including scientific support for the production of human vaccines.

Laboratories in charge of the human side of influenza pandemic preparedness, under the guidance of WHO, and veterinary laboratories working in the OFFLU framework also work together through a WHO/ OIE-FAO interface mechanism.

In April 2005, the OIE with the FAO created OFFLU and strongly supported its activities ever since, pointing out the importance for human medical research to have a timely access to the animal strains of the virus in order to prepare on time the most efficient vaccines for humans.

Through an active and permanent cooperation, OFFLU develops and harmonises scientific activities in all continents and provides a pro-active approach in providing support to infected and at risk countries to protect themselves.

OFFLU is also a precious source of scientific expertise. It maintains a database of experts recognised for their excellence who may be able for consultancy missions to respond to the needs of countries and the FAO/OIE Crisis Management Centre which holds the operational responsibility of managing missions. However, some specific issues on laboratory and scientific expertise may be carried out directly by the Network.

To allow OFFLU to carry out its activities properly, appropriate international funding is needed. Since the very beginning of the Avian Influenza crisis, the OIE alerted the international community about the need to control the virus at animal source and that national and global resources should be allocated to this end as a priority. As an essential component of the monitoring and control of the virus in animals, OFFLU must be part of this funding process decided at the Beijing Conference in January 2006.

The Steering Committee of OFFLU decided to increase activities of its permanent Secretariat (hosted in Padua , Italy ) as well as those of laboratories and epidemiology centres members of the Network. The Committee also decided to reinforce the interface mechanism between OFFLU and the WHO network of Laboratories in charge of avian influenza. Human resources of the Network were recently improved to reach all these objectives.

Liaison officers will be appointed both to OIE and FAO and two additional scientists will be appointed, respectively to the IZS in Padua ( Italy ) and to VLA in Weybridge ( United Kingdom ). These scientists will work together in Weybridge and Padova on viral strains received. Then, they will be sent to the US National Institute for Health for sequencing and deposited in full transparency o n the free-access database, GenBank .

In a world in which outbreaks of zoonotic diseases can cause considerable economic and social disruption, affect the animal kingdom while causing threats to public health I consider that it is our duty to support and strengthen Networks such as OFFLU in order to promote exchange of information on diagnostic and research programmes in laboratories and epidemiology research centres, and thus contributing in the control and eradication of Avian Influenza worldwide.

OFFLU clearly became an International Public Good.