Bird Flu Pandemic Threat Real?

Health agency workers slaughter Hong Kong chickens suspected to be contaminated with the bird flu virus.

Could the H5N1 avian flu virus mutate and spread to cause a worldwide pandemic? A study in the May 2nd issue of the online journal Nature suggests that this just might be the case. The initial ban on publishing research findings about the flu was lifted in April after experts argued that the benefits of releasing the information outweighed the perceived risk of terrorists using the data to wage biological warfare. Now a team of virologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka have altered the H5N1 virus by introducing genetic material from H1N1 'swine' flu. What they discovered was that the new form of the bird flu virus easily infected ferrets.  

HealthDay quoted Kawaoka as saying: "H5N1 viruses remain a significant threat for humans as a potential pandemic flu strain. We have found that relatively few mutations enable this virus to transmit in mammals." 

He added that because of his team's work, "we can better prepare should a pandemic virus emerge in nature. Stockpiling H5N1 vaccines and antivirals will be important for pandemic preparedness. Just as for a seasonal flu vaccine, it will be important for an H5N1 vaccine to be made to a closely related virus, so knowing which mutations may confer transmissibility will help prioritize vaccine candidates." 

 

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