Lab network proposed to avert bird flu pandemic01 Mar 2006 18:00:41 GMTSource: ReutersLONDON, March 1 (Reuters) - A global network of laboratories modelled on existing US military facilities could help to avert an influenza pandemic, scientists said on Wednesday. Researchers from the US Department of Defence Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System (DoD-GEIS) in Maryland said the facilities would improve preparedness against bird flu and other emerging infections in poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. "There is an existing model, based on a network of US military overseas laboratories, that we believe is worth copying," said Jean-Paul Chretien of DoD-GEIS in the journal Nature. Since late 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed 93 people and infected 173. Although it is essentially an animal disease, scientists fear it could mutate into a form that could become highly infectious in humans and capable of causing a pandemic that could kill millions of people. The avian virus has spread in birds from Asia to countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Chretien said developing countries often lack the surveillance facilities essential for detecting and containing diseases. The military laboratories, which work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and national governments, would provide expertise in badly needed areas. The US Naval Medical Research Unit-2 (NAMRU-2) in Jakarta helped to detect avian influenza there last summer. Another unit in Egypt was essential in spotting cases of the virus in humans in Turkey and Iraq, according to the scientists. Both units were among many set up decades ago. But due to budget cuts and other reasons, labs in Panama, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia and Malaysia have been closed. The current DoD-GEIS influenza surveillance network, which was beefed up a decade ago and supports but does not duplicate the WHO's work, includes sites in more than 20 countries. But the scientists said there are critical gaps. "We cannot be optimistic that a deadly and easily transmissible disease emerging in sub-Saharan Africa, or a rural part of Asia or South America, would be detected, characterised and contained before spreading," said Chretien and his colleagues. They added that there is now an unprecedented opportunity to improve preparedness against bird flu or other emerging diseases in poor countries. The researchers called on the WHO to consider the model they propose and judge its feasibility. "The next pandemic -- which may or may not involve influenza -- could begin anywhere in the world," they said. "Making long-term investments in laboratory and epidemiologic capabilities could help us to detect and control it."