A study from the University of Wisconsin has found that within four mutations, the H5N1 avian influenza virus could become capable of spreading among mammals. Currently the only humans to contract the virus have been those in close contact with birds. The report from Yoshihiro Kawaoka, DVM, PhD at Wisconsin says they created a hybrid virus with elements of H5N1 and H1N1 that spread among ferrets via respirator droplets. The virus did not kill the ferrets or even make them seriously ill.
Kawaoka and his team of researchers also noted the four mutations needed for the virus to become transmissible among mammals were accomplished in a lab environment and they don’t know if they would actually occur in the real world but the possibility does exist. The report cautions one of the four key mutations has already been seen in some of the H5N1 viruses circulating in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The hope is that by identifying the potentially dangerous mutations it will improve surveillance.
Publication of the report has been controversial for fear someone could use the findings to create and release a dangerous virus. Last December, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity had recommended that key details of the study be pulled from the report before publication. Dr. Kawaoka and his team reportedly revised the report a couple of times and presented it to a World Health Organization H5N1 consultation in February. The presentation and discussion resulted the consensus the benefits of publication outweigh the risks. In March the NSABB reversed its decision and recommended full publication of the information. The report was published in “Nature” on Wednesday.
A similar study is being conducted by Ron Fouchier, PhD at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands; his report is expected to be published soon in “Science”.
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