Cross Posted from Reuters
Two studies showing how scientists mutated the H5N1 bird flu virus into a form that could cause a deadly human pandemic will be published only after experts fully assess the risks, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
Last year, two teams of scientists – one led by Ron Fouchier at Erasmus Medical Center and another led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin – said they had found that just a handful of mutations would allow H5N1 to spread like ordinary flu between mammals, and remain as deadly as it is now.
This type of research is seen as vital for scientists working to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and anti-viral drugs that could be deployed in the event of an H5N1 pandemic.
In its current form, people can contract H5N1 only through close contact with ducks, chickens or other birds that carry it, and not from infected individuals.
But H5N1 can acquire mutations that allow it to live in the upper respiratory tract rather than the lower, and the Dutch and U.S. researchers found a way to make it travel via airborne droplets between infected ferrets. Flu viruses are thought to behave similarly in the animals and in people.
Asked about the potential bioterrorism risks of his and the U.S. team’s work, Fouchier said “it was the view of the entire group” at the meeting that the risks that this particular virus or flu viruses in general could be used as bioterrorism agents “would be very, very slim”.