Thursday, 4 April 2013

Bird Flu Insanity (again)

A bird flu virus never before found in humans has grabbed world attention this week after it infected and killed people in China. Scientists have been scrambling to understand how it happened and, more importantly, whether it poses a risk to public health or could potentially spark a global pandemic.
The good news is that so far there's no sign that the H7N9 virus is spreading from person to person, but experts say it has mutated in a way that has left them a bit worried.

Should we be developing more contagious bird flu?

After a one-year break, scientists are set to resume controversial research to create a deadlier, more contagious strain of bird flu.
They argue that their work is essential because it will help us to understand the virus and prevent a catastrophic pandemic. However, others worry that the modified virus could escape from the lab or fall into the hands of terrorists.

The bird flu virus – known by scientists as H5N1 – has so far killed about half of the people that it’s infected. There have been around 600 confirmed cases to date – a sizable number, but by no means a global pandemic. This is because it usually only passes to humans via contact with an infected bird.
However, researchers at the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US found that it would only take five to nine mutations in the virus' DNA to allow it to pass easily between humans.

When the results came to light in 2011, the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked academic journals to censor the results, claiming that they could be used to create bioweapons. But some scientists saw this as an attack on their academic freedom. They ended up publishing their results, but agreed to suspend the work for a year while a safety review was carried out.

Now, the researchers are set to resume their work, genetically manipulating the virus so that it can spread more easily between mammals. The aim of the research is to understand how changes in the virus might make it more dangerous, helping to foresee a pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide. But their detractors are yet to be convinced.

“I feel the world is a safer place if we maintain this moratorium,” Prof Robert May from the University of Oxford told BBC News. "These are not bad people, they are good people with good intentions, but they look through rose-coloured glasses at the security of the laboratories."