Science the key to fighting avian influenza
Dr Richard Webby at the Biosecurity
Summit in Christchurch, November 2008.
New Zealand-trained scientist Dr Richard Webby, now Associate Member with the Department of Infectious Disease at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds, was a key speaker at the Biosecurity Summit.
Dr Webby told summit delegates that science was key to optimal biosecurity in any system, especially in bringing new technology and approaches.
He said integrating science into biosecurity needed a co-ordinated strategy. Given opportunities, New Zealand science would be well able to deliver technology and new approaches.
Dr Webby said the past decade had seen an increased awareness of the danger of pandemic influenza and a corresponding increase in containment and detection methodologies. Those increases had been driven primarily by the near-global spread of highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza viruses. National responses to the threat had varied in both approach and success.
He said different countries had had mixed results in tackling the viruses, although science-based policies had been most successful, as exemplified by Hong Kong.
Understanding the epidemiology and ecology of the disease through basic research had lead Hong Kong authorities to adopt successful control strategies. Keys to Hong Kong’s success were also its small land mass, exceptional surveillance, proactive authorities, skilled personnel, collaboration of regulatory, health, agricultural and academic sectors, good funding and the integration of scientific results into biosecurity policy.
Dr Webby said that research in the years 1997–2001 found H5N1 started in aquatic birds, then spilled over to poultry. Having found the ancestral source of the virus, Hong Kong stopped the importation of aquatic birds, dramatically cutting the diversity of viruses.
Research found different viruses replicated only in some species, which led Hong Kong authorities to rule that quails could not be sold in the same markets as chickens. Another successful strategy was to introduce “clean days” in markets.
Dr Webby said there were parallels between New Zealand and Hong Kong in terms of the value of smallness and ease of collaboration in getting new technology and methods into practice.
He said the problem with H5N1 was that it had re-emerged, and a great deal of effort had been put into developing vaccines.
The WHO Collaborating Centre produced the seed strains for H5N1 viruses. Dr Webby used reverse genetics to make the first such seed strain – and the vaccine was identified by Time magazine as one of the major scientific achievements of 2007.
Considering the question “Can New Zealand science participate”, Dr Webby said, “the bottom line is it can, and it does.” New Zealand science benefited from a relatively small community, where people could speak directly to others on the phone, he said.
“Can it be improved? Everything can be improved.” What was needed was a clear research plan and clear leadership, a focused approach, and a lot of foresight to identify areas where New Zealand science could make a contribution.
Dr Webby included the above Hong Kong newspaper headlines,
from May 2001, in his presentation at the Biosecurity Summit;
including the market poultry and quails above.
Above, Dr Webby presented a World Health Organization chart showing the areas in red where H5N1 has been reported in poultry, and in orange, areas where it has been reported only in wild birds..
Page last updated: 12 January 2009