Dr. Nicole Robb, Assistant Professor at Warwick University, Oxford University lecturer, and co-founder of healthtech company Pictura Bio, has warned that the UK’s diagnostic testing capabilities are not advanced enough to deal with an influenza spill-over event from birds to humans quickly and efficiently. Dr Robb believes that new diagnostic technologies are needed as a priority.
Speaking from her lab in Warwick, Dr. Robb said that there is increased risk of H5N1 spilling over into the human population given the extraordinarily high levels of Avian Flu circulating amongst the wild bird population.
In addition to this, Dr Robb observed that the virus is no longer seasonal, meaning that there hasn’t been a dramatic lull in cases during the spring and summer months as usual.
Key points from Dr Robb’s talk included:
- To date there have been no sustained cases of human-to-human transmission. However, if it does happen it will be a serious situation. Dr Robb pointed out that previous cases of bird to human transmission were associated with high fatality rates of over 50%.
- An imminent Avian Flu pandemic is unlikely but not impossible. Looking back at trends over the last century there have been six major pandemics and outbreak frequency has accelerated significantly over the last 20 years.
- Currently, levels of H5N1 in birds in the UK is unseasonably high and H5N1 126.96.36.199b has also been detected in mammals such as foxes and otters.
- To prevent a repeat of the COVID-19 pandemic the UK must ensure it is better prepared and equipped to control viral outbreaks. More investment is needed in rapid testing.
- The UK needs to move away from centralised lab testing as it isn’t efficient and move towards testing within community settings like pharmacies so that faster diagnosis and containment is possible.
- Advanced technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will be the key to improved diagnostic testing, as outlined in this peer reviewed paper published in ACS Nano in December 2022 on a study with the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford.
Dr. Robb is leading a team at Warwick University which is focusing on improving diagnostics for the H5N1 virus in both birds and humans. She has also partnered with Oxford University scientist, Nicolas Shiaelis to form Pictura Bio, to accelerate diagnostic technology and get it to the front line of healthcare. Pictura Bio uses artificial intelligence which is trained to recognise all known pathogens, including flu viruses and their different strains. This technology can already detect human strains of influenza and Dr Robb and her team are now working to develop this capability further so that it can identify new strains of the H5N1 virus using AI facial recognition within minutes.
Dr. Robb commented: “As the global population grows, humans are moving into previously uninhabited areas, meaning more humans come into contact with wildlife which increases the risk. Whether it’s H5N1 or a different virus, it is inevitable that new viruses will continue to emerge and threaten another pandemic.
“The more this virus circulates in birds, the more it crosses over to other animals and is likely to adapt and crossover into humans. The good news is, unlike when COVID-19 emerged, H5N1 has been around for 20 years so we already have tests and vaccines. However, none of this is available at scale.
“It is essential to have reliable, quick diagnostic testing readily available in the community. It took far too long to get community testing up and running with COVID which enabled the virus to spread. COVID could have had much less of an impact if we had rapid community testing from the start.”
She concluded, “If Avian flu begins to spread more widely, this technology will provide results much more quickly. It will also give people the power to test themselves at home and relieve the strain on medics and our healthcare system. However, we need investment in the UK’s testing infrastructure to speed up this process.”