A scientific paper was released this past week after much controversy regarding bird flu research. The findings of the paper, some feared, could be used to develop a highly contagious version of the Avian H5N1 (Bird Flu) virus. While those fears have largely been quelled, the researcher’s findings indicate that a pandemic of H5N1 is “just 3 mutations away.”
Currently, H5N1 can only be transmitted to humans from birds. It cannot pass from human to human like the cold virus or other influenza viruses. According to The Times of India, scientists say based on bird flu research that there are already some strains of the bird flu that are three mutations away from being passable by humans.
“With the information we have, it is impossible to say what the exact risk of the virus becoming airborne transmissible among humans,” said Professor Derek Smith, one of the study authors. “However, the results suggest that the remaining three mutations could evolve in a single human host, making a virus evolving in nature a potentially serious threat.”
In order for H5N1 to become highly transmissible in humans, five different mutations would have to be present. Two of those five already exist. The other three were created by scientists and studied in the ferrets. Ferrets were used because they transmit the same influenza viruses as humans.
Bird Flu Research Published Among Pandemic Fears
Scientists stress that the virus that was “airborne transmissible” did not cause death in the ferrets, easing some concerns among those who worried these findings could lead to intentional mutations being spread as a bioweapons. The virus did, however, kill those ferrets in which high doses were squirted directly into their nostrils.
The bird flu research findings have been under scrutiny for months as members of the scientific community debated on whether the information should be released.
“There is always a risk,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But I believe the benefits are greater than the risks.”
According to the New York Times, statements made by the study’s lead author, Ron A. M. Fouchier spawned much of the controversy leading up to the release of the findings.
Fouchier reportedly raised alarm when giving interviews on the findings last fall. He said he had “done something really, really stupid,” and had “mutated the hell out of H5N1.” He went on to characterize the results as “very, very bad news,” saying they had created “probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”
Since that time, his enthusiasm has died down and he blames the media for overblowing the danger. Whether the findings weren’t as “very, very bad” as he originally thought or if they are simply downplaying them as an afterthought remains to be seen.