19 July 2013 - The international community will soon have a new tool at its disposal when attempting to rank animal influenza viruses by their ability to cross the species barrier and infect humans. FLURISK, a project funded by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), is nearing completion. At the final meeting of the project held 9–10 July, partners took stock of the project’s Influenza Risk Assessment Framework (IRAF) and laid out final steps before project closure in October 2013.
“How likely is it that a certain influenza virus might make the jump to humans from birds, swine or other animals? What virological and epidemiological factors elevate that risk for the specific virus in question? These are some of the questions this ambitious project aims to answer,” explained Gwenaelle Dauphin, FAO Laboratory Unit Coordinator. “An enormous amount of data has been screened and validated by the consortium over the past months. As a next step, FAO and partners are committed to ensuring the IRAF can be appropriately used by the scientific community in influenza risk assessment."
A first round of validation is ongoing, with the FLURISK consortium utilizing genetic and epidemiological data on historic animal influenza isolates selected among strains that have already caused infections in humans (e.g. H5N1 HPAI) and strains unlikely to cause public health concern (e.g. H13N8). The consortium has analyzed the 11 selected influenza strains in detail, including information on the extent of distribution in animal species, reported species jumps, molecular characterization and virus genetic similarity.
The second round of validation will begin after project completion and will depend on the commitment of the international community. Controlled and continuous use of the tool will provide the necessary validation and fine-tuning of the IRAF before it can be applied in routine risk assessments. Data flow procedures also need yet to be finalized. A large amount of data used to build the IRAF come from FAO databases. In the future, reference laboratories could play a vital role in contributing and validating data. FAO and partners will be advocating that international researchers help to fill project-identified information gaps to allow for continuous further development of the tool.
The IRAF has the potential to play an essential role in assessing emerging influenza viruses in animals according to their potential to cross the species barrier and infect humans. The tool will help prioritize research and surveillance efforts on high-risk viruses and allow for continued reassessment at any time when additional information on a virus becomes available.
FLURISK brings together six European veterinary and human medicine institutes and laboratories under the One Health Approach. External advisors include FAO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the OIE/FAO Network of Expertise on Animal Influenza (OFFLU).