Thursday, 3 May 2012

Pandemic Potential? Bird Flu Becomes Airborne With Just 4 Mutations

Bird flu can be transmitted between mammals — and possible humans — needing only four mutations to do so, a new study published this week in the journal Nature suggests. But the mutant virus is not deadly, and the work could show virologists how to combat others like it.

The research, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of two studies that already made headlines when bits of the results were made public. That's because the studies outline how to make a more easily transmissible — and deadly — version of H5N1, or avian flu. The other paper, by Ron Fouchier, of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, also described a method of breeding a virulent and transmissible flu in ferrets.

Debate flared as to whether either study should be published at all, because of fears that a terrorist group or hostile government could use it to make biological weapons. This kind of research is classified as "dual use," much like that involving nuclear material. In the end, the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB), which advises the government on publicly financed research, decided to allow the publication of Kawaoka's work. In the Netherlands, Fouchier was granted an export license, allowing him to submit the work to the journal Science. Fouchier, however, had previously said he would go ahead with publication regardless of a license. 

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