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Kiwi research team wins international bid to hunt flu virus

New Zealand scientists and flu researchers have beaten out international competition to be awarded a five-year, multi-million dollar contract to study influenza in an effort to better understand the debilitating virus and how to prevent its spread.

New Zealand scientists and flu researchers have beaten out international competition to be awarded a five-year, multi-million dollar contract to study influenza in an effort to better understand the debilitating virus and how to prevent its spread.

Billions are spent on vaccines every year; the flu results in three to five million cases of severe illness and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths around the world annually.

Dr Sue Huang and Dr Virginia HopeDr Sue Huang and Dr Virginia Hope

A group led by New Zealand’s Institute of Environmental Science & Research (ESR) will study the autumn and winter ‘flu season’ amongst the Auckland population, boosting existing influenza surveillance systems by establishing two enhanced real-time systems, one hospital-based and one community-based.

Dr Virginia Hope, ESR health programme manager, says the project will allow researchers to investigate and hopefully answer some fundamental science questions about influenza, which is one of the world’s most serious infectious diseases.

She said the SHIVERS (Southern Hemisphere Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Research and Surveilllance) project aimed to identify factors that affect whether or not someone gets influenza, and the risk groups that control measures should be targeted at.

“The dangerous thing about the flu is that the virus is constantly changing to form new strains that we don’t have an immune response for. By tracking the new strains and looking at the flu’s contribution to serious respiratory disease we can better understand host immune responses to guide better vaccine design, non-pharmaceutical interventions and pharmaceutical preventive measures.”

The research will be used to inform international public health and vaccination strategies and enable better planning for epidemics and pandemics, like the swine flu.

It is funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services for the Influenza Division of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The successful bid was led by ESR scientists with collaborators from the Universities of Auckland and Otago, Auckland DHB and international collaborators who began working together during the early stages of the influenza pandemic in 2009 .

“A critical success factor in this bid was our capacity to work collaboratively, which allowed us to pool resources and expertise across our separate institutions,” said ESR chair Dr Susan Macken.