Second Controversial Bird Flu Study Released
June 22, 2012

Second Controversial Bird Flu Study Released

Connie K. Ho for

On June 21, the second of two bird flu studies was released. It put fears to rest regarding terrorism and the global epidemic. Specifically, five genetic mutations were mentioned in the report.

The papers explained how the virus strains created by researchers could be transmitted from person to person through the air. Scientists believed that the results could help them find dangerous strains of the virus. However, last December, federal officials requested that the researchers not publish the work. They were fearful that detailing the genetic mutations of the strains would lead to opportunities for bioterrorism. As such, the scientists and others discussed the possibility of publishing the results to share information of the flu risk with other researchers.

"We hope to learn which viruses can cause pandemics and by knowing that we might be able to prevent them by enforcing strict eradication programs," commented Dr. Ron Fouchier, member of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, in a BBC News article.

The first paper, written by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was published in May in the journal Nature. The journal Science published the second paper by a team of researchers and lead author Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. According to the BBC, the study by the Erasmus Medical Center was a collaborative effort with Cambridge University that examined the genetic structure of 3,000 bird viruses and 400 viruses found in humans. As well, according to Bloomberg News, the researchers tested the virus by placing infected animals next to healthy ferrets in nearby cages. Six out of the eight healthy ferrets were found to be infected.

Generally, both papers discussed the qualities of the changed bird flu viruses among ferrets. Two mutations were found often in the strains of the virus, and three other possible mutations were identified and was a possibility people or other mammals were infected. Overall, the likelihood of the mutations are unclear.

“We now know we´re living on a fault line,” remarked Derek Smith of Cambridge University and the Erasmus Center in an Associated Press article. “It´s an active fault line. It really could do something.”

Bird flu has been transmitted among poultry in Asia, but is rarely seen in humans. Those infected have usually had contact with infected chickens and ducks. Scientists have worried that, if the virus picked up mutations, it could spread quickly from one person to the next and have life-threatening effects. The two teams of investigators later turned in updated versions of their papers to be reviewed by the federal biosecurity panel. They changed details that related to public health, rather than experimental items. In March, the panel agreed to publish the changes, believing the publication of the research would help deter a pandemic.

"I believe that the benefits are greater than the risks. Does that mean there's no risk? No, of course not," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the AFP news agency. "Being in the free and open literature would make it much easier to get a lot of the good guys involved than the risk of getting the rare bad guy involved."

Other researchers are hopeful about the information provided in the published papers.

"How much of a fitness cost these changes confer individually or when combined and in which species, will be important to establish before we can really assess how close we are to the H5 pandemic,” noted Wendy Barclay, Chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College London, in a Telegraph article. "Hopefully more work from the biologists to help the mathematicians address how mutant influenza viruses with new properties evolve within a host will increase our ability to estimate the risks of pandemics."

Scientists´ hope that the research related to the avian flue will aid in the development of vaccines and anti-viral drugs against H5N1.

"It has become clear that we will need to work toward the establishment of a comprehensive, international system for assessing Durc, one that includes transparent procedures to allow selected access to any information omitted from a scientific publication to those with a need to know,” remarked Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science in the BBC News article.