Five Mutations Away From Flu Pandemic?

The scientific study into bird flu, that has been withheld from publication, is finally out there. The worry was that the information contained in the study could be hijacked by terrorists and used to make a biological weapon. It is still a worry because the research points out that the H5N1 virus is just five genetic mutations away from being an airborne contagion. The researchers, based in the Netherlands made these 5 changes and found that the virus spread through the air between their laboratory animals. Ferrets respond to the flu virus in the same physiological way as humans.

The big question is what are the chances of the five mutations happening naturally with H5N1? Unfortunately, the answer is impossible to even guess at, but there is no natural obstacle to it happening. Bird flu was first discovered in the Guangdong province of China, where it killed a poultry worker in 1996, and initiated a whole monitoring program that has two aims: Firstly, to spot the pandemic inducing changes as early as possible and secondly to develop a vaccine. The deadly virus has shown up in Asia, Europe, parts of Africa and the Middle East where it first decimates poultry stocks and only intermittently and with difficulty transfers to people.

The lead researcher likened the situation to living on a geological fault line that is active, and the race is on to find out how like an eruption is. The US Biosecurity Panel delayed publication of the research paper since December, while asking the scientists to edit and cut some parts of the report that they felt could be helpful to enemy scientists. However, a World Health Organisation convention in February called for full publication in order that the data be added to scientific knowledge and aid in the quest for a vaccine and cures. It will also help public health officials prepare for the possible pandemic.

The concern over an avian flu virus pandemic is justified since over 600 confirmed cases have occurred since 2003, and over 360 of these people have died. Most of the victims were working closely with poultry. That is a mortality rate of 60% and very much on the minds of the WHO in Geneva, where the question of consciousness is a big issue. Currently, 2 pharmaceutical giants make vaccines against H5N1, Novartis AG and CSL ltd while GSK Plc applied in March for EU approval of its brand.

When influenza viruses such as H5N1 develop they subtly change their genetic makeup with each generation. It is a process known as antigenic drift. All the influenza pandemics in history can be traced to antigenic drift The one in 1918 was called ‘Spanish flu’ and is estimated to have killed fifty million people. Part of antigenic drift is the combination of human and animal virus to make new species of pathogens which human immunity has not managed to keep up with. The researchers in Rotterdam believe that there is a significant antigenic drift even without human-animal virus mingling.

In their laboratory and using ferrets the researchers looked at three previous instances of antigenic drift and made changes to an Indonesian H5N1 strain.

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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