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A branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a contract of $3.6 million to Emory’s Influenza Pathogenesis and Immunology Research Center (IPIRC), a program dedicated to investigating and preventing the spread of influenza, according to IPIRC Director Walter Orenstein.

In an April 9 press release, the NIH announced its renewed financial awards to the five centers dedicated to flu research under the NIH branch known as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Emory’s IPIRC, one of the five NIAID centers known colloquially as the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS), could potentially receive $26.7 million over the next seven years of the contract’s duration, depending on the center’s year-by-year research-based financial needs during that period, Orenstein said. Orienstein, a School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health professor, added that the last seven-year sum, given to the IPIRC in April 2007, totaled $32.8 million.

“I am very satisfied with the contract,” Orenstein said, adding that it will help Emory and its IPIRC subcontractor, the University of Georgia, to “answer some of the key questions about influenza, which should help in reducing the substantial global health burden influenza viruses exact each year.”

This year’s award marks the first donation since the establishment of the five CEIRS centers in 2007, according to Orenstein, who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) before he became director and principal investigator of the IPIRC in 2011. Emory Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Richard Compans, who is now co-principal investigator at the IPIRC, served as Orenstein’s predecessor from 2007, when the IPIRC was established, to 2011.

According to a panel review of the centers conducted by NIAID in October 2011, the CEIRS program grew out of a 2006 NIAID panel on influenza research, which aimed to identify knowledge gaps concerning the virus. The latter panel found that progress was needed in the areas of influenza vaccines, animal-human transmission and laboratory analysis, among others.

In March 2007, NIAID created six centers, two of which left the group since then and one, based at Johns Hopkins University, will enter and was just given its first NIAID contract, according to the press release.

Each center tackles a facet of influenza described in the press release and can change its specific focus over time.

IPIRC plans to look at strains of the flu carried by swine and poultry, as well as the responses of pregnant women to the virus. The University of Rochester’s CEIRS center plans to study how the human immune system reacts to infection and vaccination. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City will examine the range of animals capable of carrying the virus.

Immediately following the 2009 H1N1 influenza, or “swine flu” pandemic, the CEIRS network quickly characterized the virus and tested possible vaccines, according to the press release.

“Of the greatest concern at the moment is an influenza A virus termed ‘H7N9,'” Orenstein said, adding that it has led to 286 human cases since the end of December.

But Orenstein said there’s no need to pull out the hand sanitizer yet; the virus hasn’t left mainland China and appears to have difficulty spreading from infected birds to humans and from humans to other humans, so the strain doesn’t pose much of a threat.​​

– By Lydia O’Neal