MRC lays out £10m plan for bird flu

December 2, 2005

The Medical Research Council wants to earmark up to £10 million for research into avian influenza, it told the Government's Science and Technology Select Committee this week.

Chief executive Colin Blakemore told MPs that the MRC's high-level strategic committee would recommend to its governing council making a £10 million investment in research on avian flu.

If the council agrees to the initiative when it meets in three weeks, the £10 million would be split in two.

The first tranche would go "very rapidly into quick, innovative developments as well as longer-term research", Professor Blakemore said.

The second stage of funding would go towards longer-term proposals covering new approaches to antivirals, vaccines, immunotherapy and clinical observations.

The council will also spend part of the money on an exchange programme to bring young Chinese scientists to the UK to do research.

Three types of research support are envisaged:

  • Conventional research grants of three to five years with an emphasis on rapid delivery of results
  • Research grants for work only in the event of a pandemic, when viral samples are available
  • Money for existing MRC units to divert their research efforts to avian flu issues either now or when a pandemic hits, with guaranteed money to continue with their former research when the avian flu work is completed.

More detail on exactly what the money would fund is to be decided at a workshop that will take place next week, Professor Blakemore told the committee.

But proposals on cell-based culture as an alternative to testing on eggs is one possible area of research that might be funded.

"This is not a reflex reaction but has been well considered over the past year or more against a background of long-term research by the MRC,"

Professor Blakemore said. "We have the money in our strategic fund, and I very much hope the council will agree to our plans."

Alan Hay, director of the World Health Organisation Influenza Reference Centre, one of four networking centres for avian flu in the world, told MPs: "More support is needed from the Government via the MRC to support this research."

Asked if the Government was doing enough, Professor Blakemore said: "I really believe the Government is doing all it can be reasonably expected to do at this stage."

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