Just when you thought you could relax about bird flu, along comes an article that could force you to reconsider that assumption.
The journal Science recently published a frightening tale about a man-made flu virus. This version of the H5N1 influenza, which is in a medical building in Rotterdam, could reportedly kill "many millions" of people if it were ever released into the general population.
It was genetically altered so it can be transmitted between ferrets—animals that offer a similar response to the flu as humans do.
Meanwhile, the article reported that a second virologist at the University of Wisconsin has prepared an H5N1 virus with similar capabilities.
The research of both groups is being reviewed by the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity.
"I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one," the group's chair, Paul Keim told the publication.
In 2006, I wrote a cover story and sidebar article in the Georgia Straight about bird flu.
At the time, a University of Ottawa virologist, Earl Brown, told me that there are 16 "H" and nine "N" proteins ("hemagglutinin" and "neuraminidase") on an influenza virus.
He said that there appeared to be a "fairly significant genetic barrier" preventing the H5N1 virus from adapting to infect humans, even though it was quite capable of wiping out bird populations.
"I've never seen H5s establish themselves in humans," Brown noted in 2006. "If H5 did, it would be another thing we haven't seen historically. It doesn't mean it won't happen."
So why would teams led by virologists Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka create, in Fouchier's words "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make"?
According to Science, Fouchier says it's because his research demonstrates that previous assumptions are wrong about H5N1's ability to infect humans.
Fouchier reportedly "passed the virus from one ferret to another multiple times, a low-tech and time-honored method of making a pathogen adapt to a new host".
"After 10 generations, the virus had become 'airborne'," Science reported. "Healthy ferrets became infected simply by being housed in a cage next to a sick one."
The World Health Organization has described flu viruses as "sloppy, capricious, and promiscuous". That's because they make errors in their replications, they change in unpredictable ways, and they create millions of progeny.
Let's hope the scientists handling these deadly creations aren't as sloppy as the viruses themselves.
source: Scientists create bird-flu viruses that can kill millions | Georgia Straight