At long last, 2nd controversial look at bird flu virus finally published

Nearly 6 months ago, a U.S. government advisory board recommended publication restrictions for two separate papers that looked at how the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus might spread more easily in humans. Now, the more controversial of the two research efforts has been published, coming out a month after the other work finally saw print when officials reversed course about their concerns.

As The New York Times reports, the journal Science has just published work by scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, focused on 5 mutations of the virus that appear to make it spread much more easily among ferrets. That's a concern, because ferrets are prone to the same flu viruses that people get, the article notes.

Meanwhile, as the journal's coverage of the study itself points out, some celebrate the release of the research because it can help better understand the H5N1 virus and ultimately stop it, while others are still concerned that the work could fall into the hands of bioterrorists.

As part of their work, the Erasmus scientists artificially introduced three mutations. Nasal washes between infected ferrets helped spread the other two, according to the story. Interestingly, the virus became less lethal as its contagiousness increased, and the ferrets only died when they caught the virus when it was squirted into their nostrils, rather than through airborne transmission. What's significant though, according to the story, is that the research by Ron A. M. Fouchier and his team determined that H5N1 can become contagious on its own, and not after mixing with a more contagious virus.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison finally had his research published in May by the journal Nature. He tested on ferrets a hybrid virus made of an H5N1 gene and the pandemic strain of the 2009 H1N1 virus. Kawaoka concluded that the virus could be transmitted to humans and possibly become a pandemic.

All of this matters, of course, because while many companies are trying to develop vaccines to treat various H5N1 strains, only one is FDA-approved. The Sanofi Pasteur vaccine is stockpiled by the government and not sold commercially, and the government remains concerned about outbreaks.

- read the NYT story (sub. req.)
- here's the study abstract