Bird flu could mutate to cause pandemic26th June 2012
Scientists have warned in a ground-breaking study of the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, that it would only need to undergo five genetic mutations to be able to spread between humans.
They say avian influenza is still capable of becoming the next pathogen to cause a deadly pandemic.
The researchers have published their findings in the journal Science, in spite of attempts by a US agency to stop them, for fear that terrorists could use the information to make a biological weapon.
Study lead author Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said, however, that publishing his work was the best possible way for the global scientific community to fight the emergence of any future pandemic.
Fouchier said experts wanted to learn which viruses can cause pandemics, so as to prevent them by enforcing strict eradication programmes.
Avian influenza is a lethal form of bird flu which has devastated poultry flocks in East Asia, Africa and Middle East in the past decade, but which has yet to mutate so as to pass easily from person to person.
Most of the human cases recorded have been traced back to contact with poultry. Since 332, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed the deaths of 332 people from the disease.
Fouchier also hopes that his research will boost hopes for vaccines and anti-viral drugs against H5N1, which has killed tens of millions of birds and prompted the slaughter of hundreds of millions more.
If bird flu does mutate, it may gain the ability to live in droplets from human coughs and sneezes, travelling through the air.
Once airborne, the virus could trigger a pandemic that could result in tens of millions of deaths worldwide.
Fouchier's study, which set out to investigate which mutations the virus would need in order to become airborne, is the first to confirm that the emergence of such a deadly virus is theoretically possible.
It looked at the genetic structure of H5N1, comparing it with viruses which have been isolated from previous influenza pandemics and noting five key changes.
They tested their hypothesis by genetically modifying H5N1 to a form which was easily transmitted between ferrets, via coughs and sneezes.
Researchers in Cambridge then examined the likelihood of such mutations happening without human intervention, concluding that it was possible after studying the genetic structure of 3,000 avian viruses and 400 human ones.
Study leader Derek Smith said researchers still needed to understand better exactly how influenza viruses spread between people, however.
Science journal editor in chief Bruce Alberts welcomed the publication of the research, but added that scientists should work to set up an international referral system for research that might be used maliciously.
However, scientists agree for the time being that H5N1 is unlikely to mutate to an airborne form for the time being, or it would have already happened.
Further risk assessment is needed, however, to help policy-makers with pandemic planning.
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