After months of deliberation, a controversial study from the Netherlands examining how the H5N1 virus - also known as avian influenza or bird flu, could be genetically altered and transmitted by mammals as an airborne pathogen was published last week. The paper was completed in 2011, but because of widespread concerns that bioterrorists could use this information to engineer a weapon, the findings were not published until now.
Avian flu affects several types of birds, including farmed poultry (chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks). Bird flu can also be transmitted from livestock to wild birds and also to pet birds, and vice-versa. The virus spreads through infected birds, via their saliva, nasal secretions, feces, and feed.
The first avian influenza virus to infect humans occurred in Hong Kong in 1997 and was linked to infected chickens.
Human cases of H5N1 have since been reported in Asia, Africa, Europe, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Pacific, and the near East. Since 2003, nearly 60% of the 606 cases of human infection of H5N1 reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) worldwide, have resulted in death.
The research, published in the journal Science, details how Netherlands-based researchers engineered H5N1 to transmit among ferrets, which respond to bird flu much like humans do. Typically, the bird flu can only move from bird to human; human to human transmission is rare. In the experiment, scientists took three flu virus mutations that caused worldwide pandemics in the years 1918, 1957, and 1968, and applied them to the modern bird flu.
The publication of the research will make the world safer by stimulating "scientists and policymakers to focus on preparing defenses," says Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of the journal.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., defended the publication. Each year, seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide, and when new variants arise pandemic flu can kill millions. Making the research available in the scientific literature makes it easier to get the good guys involved, outweighing "the risk of getting the rare bad guy involved," Fauci said.
Others disagree about the paper's publication.
"I think it was really important work that should be done, but I think it should have limited distribution," says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance at the University of Minnesota. He believes the research broke what was very likely a "natural barrier" limiting transmission between mammals, and giving labs worldwide the knowledge of how to replicate that worries him.
The issue is far from over, he says. "There are many more papers that are on their way that will enable the rest of the world to do this work in a more comprehensive and easier way and I think we're ill prepared to deal with this."
The avian flu virus has been shown to survive in the environment for long periods of time. Infection may be spread simply by touching contaminated surfaces. Birds who were infected with this flu can continue to release the virus in their feces and saliva for as long as 10 days.
Doctors recommend that people get an influenza (flu) shot to reduce the chance of an avian flu virus mixing with a human flu virus, which would create a new virus that may easily spread.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a vaccine to protect humans from the avian flu. Experts say the vaccine could be used if the current H5N1 virus starts spreading between people.
What are your thoughts on these controversial research findings being published? Should they should have limited the distribution on this research?
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