Laboratory-engineered strains of H5N1 influenza, also known as bird flu, aren’t as dangerous as some have been led to believe, said a scientist involved in the controversial research Wednesday.
The researcher, virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, has been at the center of an ongoing debate about bird flu research among public health and biodefense officials. He made his comments at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting, in Washington, D.C.
Bird flu is lethal more than half of the time it strikes humans. It is also very hard for humans to catch. Most people who have developed bird flu have been in close contact with infected birds; only a few have gotten sick from very close contact with infected people. But virologists and public health officials have worried that the virus might have the potential to mutate so that it could pass more easily between humans, through droplets in the air.
Fouchier and University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka led two separate research studies to test whether that was possible — and discovered it was. Both teams introduced mutations into the H5N1 virus and found it was transmissible between ferrets (a proxy for humans in flu research).
Concerned the new viral strains could escape the lab and infect humans or people with nefarious intentions could engineer their own dangerous bird flus using data from the research, in December a U.S. advisory panel asked the scientific journals who had planned to publish the work to remove sensitive information from the papers. Scientists and policy makers around the world have been discussing how — and in some cases, whether — to proceed with the work ever since.
According to news reports Wednesday, Fouchier told the audience at the biodefense meeting the H5N1 strain created in his lab was not as lethal as some have feared. While it was deadly to some ferrets who were infected with large doses of the virus administered directly into the nose, it did not kill any of the ferrets who caught the illness by inhaling droplets in the air, he said.
“This virus does not spread like the pandemic or seasonal flu,” he said, according to this news story from MedPage Today.
Another panel member, the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the U.S. government will ask the NSABB to review the work again once clarifications about the mutated viruses’ ability to pass between mammals are added in, Nature News reported.
Video of the panel discussion is available at the ASM biodefense meeting website.