Simple contagion: One of the country's leading science journals publishes the full details about how researchers made the deadly bird flu (H5N1) transmissible between ferrets, which are a model for studying human flu epidemics. Image: iStockphoto/GlobalIP
These initial findings were presented last September in Malta at the European Scientific Working group on Influenza meeting to an auditorium packed with fellow scientists and policy makers. Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, himself a bit sniffly at the time, calmly explained that he and his team had discovered that without the help of another virus, the deadly avian flu (H5N1) could easily mutate in mammals to become transmissible through the air, like a true pandemic strain, through a sneeze or a cough. And it might need as few as five mutations to make that leap.
The findings took time to gain attention wider public attention, but when research manuscripts describing the specific mutations that the virus underwent were submitted to scientific journals, many scientists and commentators protested, suggesting such information could be used by bioterrorists to manufacture a pandemic flu strain. But after extensive review by researchers, journal editors and even the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a decision was finally made to take the papers public.
Today in Science, the full paper on the ferret experiment is being published and made freely available online in its entirety. This publication follows the May release of a similar H5N1 study in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) A second Science study, also published online June 21, assesses the likelihood that these mutations will occur in nature and spur a pandemic in humans. Today's paper is published alongside eight essays explaining some of the risks and benefits of this sort of research.
The upshot is further evidence that this deadly bird flu spreading to humans "is absolutely in the realm of possibility," Derek Smith, of the University of Cambridge, who co-authored the separate, second Science paper said at a Wednesday press briefing. "We see no fundamental hurdle to that happening."
H5N1 has already been found in some 20 mammalian species, including dogs, cats, humans and the dreaded virus reservoir, pigs, Fouchier noted at the briefing. About 600 human deaths have been confirmed in the past 15 years as being caused by this infection, acquired directly from birds. (The mortality rate among humans has been reported at a scary 60 percent, but this is likely an overestimate because non-lethal cases are probably not reported as often, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, noted in an essay in the same issue of Science)
"Whether this virus may acquire the ability to be transmitted via aerosols or respiratory droplets among mammals, including humans, to trigger a future pandemic is a key question for pandemic preparedness," Fouchier and his colleagues wrote in their paper.