The bird flu secrets are out of the bag. A lab-engineered bird flu strain spread easily among mammals, and the Nature article that reports the findings remains part of a hot debate in science about whether to guard details from research that in the wrong hands could be used to do harm.
After a U.S. government committee pushed to keep a lid on the research, a University of Wisconsin-led team revealed in a controversial Nature article that a mutated version of H5N1 bird flu passes from one ferret to another without trouble, the Los Angeles Times reported. Spread in the air, the hybrid strain of bird flu included an H5 hemagglutinin gene, which plays a role in binding the virus to airway cells, and genes from the swine flu behind the 2009 pandemic. None of the animals died during the experiment.
This study, led by University of Wisconsin virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, underscores how malleable flu strains can be in spreading from one mammalian host to another. His research was one of two flu investigations that a U.S. government group originally set out to limit last year before changing course early this year after deciding that the findings weren't as threatening to the public as once thought, according to an Associated Press article. Bird flu, of course, has been lethal mostly to birds, but a majority of the 602 human cases of H5N1 infections have resulted in death.
Scientists have tinkered with the genetics of bird flu to identify dangerous mutations, the AP reported. The fear has been that a killer strain of the virus could lead to a pandemic, and the recent hold-up from the government committee stemmed from concerns that terrorists or other wicked individuals would use data from the studies to concoct a lethal strain and unleash the virus on the public.
A mutation that emerged in Kawaoka's study has already appeared in the Middle East and Asia, he told the Los Angeles Times. The second study that was delayed from being published because of the government group's concerns is expected to appear in the journal Science in the near future.