Five genetic changes that could allow bird flu pandemic

Bird flu research Research into the H5N1 virus has to be carried out in highly controlled conditions

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A few of you may remember that this blog started life with the unlikely title 'Fergus on flu' during the swine flu pandemic.

It has since undergone a few changes to its present form. So I could hardly ignore some long-awaited and important research on H5N1 bird flu.

Researchers from the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands have identified five genetic mutations that could allow the H5N1 virus to spread rapidly among humans.

The work was in ferrets which are considered the best animal model for influenza research. I have written about ferrets and flu before.

Publication was delayed for several months after a US agency expressed concern that it might be useful to bioterrorists.

The issue provoked huge debate among the scientific community as to whether it was right to censor research. Eventually the US government and the journals Science and Nature agreed that the papers from teams in Rotterdam and Wisconsin should be published in full.

Last month Nature published its H5N1 research and now that's been followed by a series of papers in the journal Science.

Together they set out the potential threat of an H5N1 pandemic and how to prepare for it.

My colleague Pallab Ghosh has a summary of the Science research which you can read here.

Two of the five genetic changes that would be needed have already been found in avian flu viruses. But researchers could not say how likely it was for the other three mutations to occur.

H5N1 remains almost exclusively a disease of birds. Since it was first spotted in Hong Kong in 1997 it has caused millions of deaths in poultry.

The virus can spread to humans after close contact with infected birds, but does not spread from person to person.

There have been 606 confirmed cases in humans since 2003 and 357 deaths.

The potential for a pandemic of avian flu is considered by the World Health Organisation as one of the greatest potential threats to global health.

So is the world a safer or a more dangerous place now that these papers have been published?

The journals involved argue this data will allow scientists to monitor the threat from avian flu and work on preparations for a potential pandemic. That view is widely shared among scientists.

Prof Geoffrey Boulton, Chair of the newly published Royal Society report on Open Data, said: "The decision, after careful scrutiny, to publish this avian flu research is a good example of how worries about threats of misuse can be balanced against potential benefits by spreading awareness that may be vital in combating natural outbreaks".

Virologists hope the legacy of this controversy will be a renewed effort to plan for the next flu pandemic, with particular emphasis on vaccine research.

H1N1 swine flu turned out to be far less lethal than feared. But there is concern that an H5N1 pandemic would be far more deadly.

Fergus Walsh, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #11 the benefit is easy. We now know the worst case scenario for an H5N1 mutation so can get to work designing a vaccine in case the mutation happens naturally. As proof of concept my company (a VERY small biotech firm) made a swine flu vaccine from scratch in 4 weeks last year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Let me put it this way: Would any country with nuclear power, input directions, including schematics to the Internet so that other nuclear scientists could become more knowledgeable.
    I can see the worry of this stupidity, but I cannot see the benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    #9 Its unlikely any responsible scientist would do this sort of work using an entire viable flu virus. I used to work on a related virus which had an H & an N protein rather than an HN. We engineered a butterfly virus (harmless to humans) to express parts of either the H or N protein and studied that. It could bind to human blood but couldn't replicate in humans. Much safer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    flu virus mutate - of course it is possible that it'll become a problem in the future.

    But the amount of bad science and hyperbole that is perpetrated claiming greater threat than climate change is nonsense.

    The science investigating the virus has a chance of releasing a new strain too by accident. One Foot & Mouth outbreak in UK attributed to flooding of such a lab.

    a risk but not much control

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    #5 as a rule evolution favours the less deadly strains of virus for a very simple reason: its bad business to kill your host as it stops you spreading your genes about.

    The bio-terrorism threat is greatly overplayed too. Engineering the virus apart (not easy) even a repeat of 1918 flu is hardly the black death (% of death wise) and its most likely to kill those in the 3rd world not the 1st.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    is it appropriate to perhaps suggest that given the overwhelming population and excessive consumption of ....... well everything that something along the lines of a global pandemic might be the proverbial shot in the arm the planet needs. However its far more likely the human race will devastate all before us while our "amazing" medical scientific advances continue to extend our reign of horror.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    H5N1... The biggest and most pathetic overstated scare since deadly venomous spiders living under toilet seat lids in aeroplane lavatories!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    #2. That is a good question which cant be answered. In birds, some H5N1 viruses have a 'low' level in virulence and others have near 100% mortality rates. H5N1 is a rapidly evolving virus, with many clades and subclades circulating in the wild. Human infections in Egypt are producing lower levels of mortality, whereas CFR in Indonesia is closer to 80%. Which one might fully adapt? No one knows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Shocking that it has taken so long for work furthering basic understanding of a potentially nasty bug to be published. Now scampering off to read it...

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It's only a matter of time not when according to Margaret Chan, D-G of the WHO now in her second term.

    Dr David Hill
    World Innovation Foundation

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    it's "these" data (plural), and the really key question is not addressed: do those 3 extra mutations also reduce the virulence of the virus? and does the general population already have antibodies against those "airborne" antigens?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Its a question that we can't afford to duck



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