EU to pump €18m into flu research

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The European Commission has unveiled plans to pour €18 million into research projects on influenza. The news comes as MEPs from across the political spectrum call for a European Parliament inquiry into the handling of the swine flu pandemic.

The EU executive has shortlisted four collaborative projects for funding. These involve 52 research institutes and SMEs from 18 European countries and three international partners – Israel, China and the US.

This latest series of projects bring the total Commission funding for flu research to over €100 million since 2001.

EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said EU research to prevent and treat flu has "enormous social and economic value and can contribute significantly to our Europe 2020 goals".

Flu virus genes migrate across continents and between species and seriously threaten both human and animal health, according to the Commission.

Two consortia will focus their research on influenza in pigs while the two others will develop innovative drugs against influenza in humans.

A new European surveillance network for influenza in pigs aims to increase knowledge of the epidemiology and evolution of the swine flu virus in European pigs. "A strong focus will be monitoring the spread and independent evolution of pandemic H1N1 2009 virus in pigs," the EU executive said.

Meanwhile, MEPs are demanding an inquiry into how European public health authorities handled the flu pandemic. In a statement, the parliamentarians said the credibility of the EU institutions had been undermined in the wake of the outbreak.

"The inadequate appraisal of risk in view of the data available and the marketing authorisations granted to various pandemic vaccines, which the European public health authorities declared safe without proper prior investigation, force us, as members of the European Parliament, to ask a number of questions," they said.

Speaking in Strasbourg, they said the public and media were not provided with "good objective, up-to-date communication" when scientific data suggested the flu pandemic was not as potent as first feared.

"Is there any justification for the allegations that certain experts within the European public health authorities had undeclared conflicts of interest?" said the cross-party group of MEPs.

Any action taken by the European Parliament should not seek to "name and shame," said French Green MEP Michele Rivasi, who wants a parliamentary committee to probe the EU's response to the flu pandemic.

The inquiry would shed light on the precise timeline of events, the decision-making process and the manner in which expert opinion was sought and EU recommendations on the pandemic were made, the fourteen MEPs added.

During the presentation of the initiative, French Green MEP Michele Rivasi said the crisis was overblown and noted that parliamentary inquiries were established following the BSE crisis.

"We have been warned of a pandemic which did not happen. Expensive and disproportionate solutions were recommended. Who is leading the European health institutions? How confident will European citizens be during future pandemics if we do not rethink our way of working?" she said.

Bulgarian Liberal MEP Antonyia Parvanova said confidence is crucial in managing serious health crises, and "a lot of answers are missing on the way the alleged H1N1 pandemic has been managed at EU level and by member states".

"This is an issue of transparency, responsibility and accountability. It is our role and duty, as parliamentarians, to shed light on questions that citizens themselves are asking if we want to ensure they trust our institutions when it comes to public health matters," she said.

Former French Environment Minister Corinne Lepage, now a liberal MEP, said public opinion is demonstrating an increased distrust towards scientific expertise and public authorities in the medical field, as well as in the field of health and food safety.

"The reaction of the French population, which overwhelmingly refused to be vaccinated against H1N1 influenza, is very indicative of this trouble. We must demand full transparency and squarely refuse the increase in cases of conflict of interest," she said.

In June 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its flu pandemic alert level to phase six, marking the first full-scale global pandemic in 41 years. European governments put forward national response plans and prepared for an anticipated surge in cases as winter approached. 

The European health agency predicted that 30% of Europeans would be infected with the H1N1 virus. Most people infected with the virus - which is sometimes referred to as swine flu or Mexican flu - make a full recovery, but deaths have been recorded on all continents. 

The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) introduced a system to fast-track approval for new swine flu vaccines. Initially, two doses of each vaccine were thought to be necessary, but it became clear during the autumn that a single dose would be sufficient. This, along with a lukewarm public response to vaccination programmes, left governments with large stocks of excess flu vaccines, which they are now trying to sell.

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