Scientists create bird flu virus you could catch from a sneeze
Research shows H5N1 virus needs only to mutate five times before being capable of causing a 'global pandemic'
SCIENTISTS have published a paper explaining how they engineered an airborne contagious strain of the deadly bird flu virus H5N1. The publication follows eight months of debate over the safety of releasing what amounts to a guide to creating a global pandemic.
Dutch researchers explain in their paper, published in Science, precisely how they engineered bird flu strains that were contagious in ferrets - laboratory animals often used as proxies for people in influenza research.
As few as five mutations, generated by passing the virus from ferret to ferret just ten times, might be enough to confer on the bug the ability to infect new hosts through coughs and sneezes, the BBC reports.
Virologist Ron Fouchier, lead author of the report said: "We assume also in humans it would only take a low number of transmission events for these mutations to accumulate."
The paper's publication ended an acrimonious debate over whether such results should ever be released. Critics said they could help a rogue scientist create a superweapon. Proponents said the world needed to identify dangerous mutations so countermeasures could be designed.
"There is always a risk," Dr Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a telephone news conference held by Science. "But I believe the benefits are greater than the risks."
H5N1 has killed millions of birds. It has also been deadly, if rare, in humans. The World Health Organisation has confirmed 606 cases of
H5N1 infection in people since 2003. Nearly 60% of those cases were fatal, a figure that suggests the virus has the potential to wipe out millions of people if it became widespread, reports The Daily Telegraph.
Derek Smith, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Cambridge, looked at H5N1 strains already circulating in birds and humans to figure out how many key mutations each strain might require to infect mammals through the air.
Smith compared the H5N1 threat to the earthquake risk posed by the San Andreas fault. "It really is real, but we just don't know how real yet," he said. "What we know from our study is that it's active and it could go off."
Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Smith said that influenza viruses mutate all the time and only five mutations would be needed to produce airborne transmission in, for instance, sneeze droplets.
When asked if any of these mutations might have already occurred in birds, Smith said: "Two of these mutations are already out there among birds, meaning some strains are only three mutations away [from becoming airborne]."
However, those three mutations would have to happen in humans. That is a lot, but not impossible Smith said. The research is "a massive step forward towards ameliorating and mitigating the problem". Some good news: scientists also noted that as the virus mutated it "lost lethality".