A Bird Flu Pandemic Is Just Three Mutations Away

Late last year studies into mutated avian flu, H5N1, were deemed too risky to be published. Now, one has made its way into a journal—and it warns that a bird flu pandemic is just three mutations away.

The study describes how a team of scientists, from Cambridge, Rotterdam and the NIH, managed to create H5N1 virus strains that could become capable of airborne transmission between mammals. Their experiments, which we've explained in some detail before, show some worrying results:

In his Netherlands laboratory, virologist Ron Fouchier was experimenting with the avian flu virus to see how it could become even more virulent. (Red flag.) His research involved spreading it throughout a population of ferrets, and he noticed that as the virus reproduced, it adapted to spread even faster. (RED FLAG.) Not worried about ferret flu? Previous research has shown that any strains of influenza that can pass between ferrets can also pass between humans. (RED FLAAAAAAAAAG.) Ten generations later, his efforts had created an airborne strain...

But with the publishing of the paper in Science comes some extra information. The researchers explain that there are strains of H5N1 already in existence that are just three mutations away from taking a form which would render them passable form one human to another.

Obviously, that could be more or less scary depending on how easy it is for those three mutations to occur. Warning: it's towards the scarier end of spectrum. Prof Derek Smith, one of the Cambridge researchers, explains to the Telegraph:

"With the information we have, it is impossible to say what the exact risk is of the virus becoming airborne transmissible among humans. However, the results suggest that the remaining three mutations could evolve in a single human host, making a virus evolving in nature a potentially serious threat."

One. Freaking. Person. Fortunately, the paper goes on to point out that, when they engineered such viruses, the results weren't deadly to ferrets when caught via inhalation. That suggests the same should be the case for humans and, in turn, that eases some initial concerns which feared that HN51 could be made into a bioweapon by terrorists. Which is, at least, some small crumb of comfort. [Science, Telegraph]

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