By Daniel J. DeNoon
For better or for worse, scientists have taught the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus how to spread among mammals.
At last official count, the virus has killed 322 of the 566 people known to have been infected. There’s only one reason why that number is so low: H5N1 bird flu can’t spread easily from person to person.
But now two groups of scientists have taught the flu bug a new trick. They’ve taught H5N1 to spread among ferrets, the lab animal used in place of humans in flu studies. Flu bugs that spread among humans usually spread among ferrets. Not all flu viruses that spread in ferrets can spread in humans — but this is a big step in that direction.
Ron Fouchier, PhD, of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, led a team that engineered three simple mutations into H5N1. After 10 “passages” in ferrets — that is, 10 rounds of infecting one ferret with the virus and then infecting another with the virus that grew in that ferret — Fouchier ended up with an H5N1 bug that spread easily from ferret to ferret, all by itself.
“The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu,” Fouchier told New Scientist magazine last September.
It took a total of only five simple mutations for the bird flu virus to learn this trick. All of these mutations currently can be found in various H5N1 viruses from birds — just not at the same time. Not yet. Nature can do in the wild what scientists can do in the lab. Such viruses already may exist, they just haven’t yet been passed to humans.
At the University of Wisconsin, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, DVM, is said to have done the same thing as Fouchier’s team. Both teams of researchers want to publish their results.
Why? The findings offer crucial information to other scientists about what makes flu bugs deadly, what makes them transmissible, and what might make them vulnerable to vaccines and antiviral drugs. Of course, it also offers a recipe for making a killer virus for those who have the right education, the right technology, and the wrong motives.
The studies have been submitted to Science magazine, a high-prestige journal. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), has asked Science “to publish only an abbreviated version” of the studies, according to a news release by the journal’s editor in chief, Bruce Alberts.
The NSABB specifically “asked Science to delete details regarding both scientific methodology and specific viral mutations.” That, of course, is the studies’ beating heart. Alberts says the journal will negotiate with NSABB about exactly what information it will omit.
Did the deadly mutant version of bird flu really have to be made? Do the details really have to be made public? And would censoring those details really stop anyone from duplicating this relatively simple experiment? And what if one of those ferrets got loose?
“I can’t think of another pathogenic virus as scary as this one,” NSABB chairman Paul Keim, PhD, told ScienceInsider. “I don’t think anthrax is scary at all compared to this.”