There’s been a lot of talk recently about some research that’s been done recently on H5N1 bird flu. Basically, two separate research teams made mutations in the virus that makes it transmit more easily between mammals.
H5N1 bird flu is fatal in about 60% of human cases, though the number of people infected is small, as infection generally involves close contact with lots of poultry. There are a few isolated cases of people getting bird flu without being near poultry, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
There’s been some controversy about how many details the researchers should provide in their publications. The basic fear is that terrorists are going to get this information, and engineer their own virus and use it as a biological weapon. It’s reminiscent of the study done a few years ago sequencing the 1918 flu genome. As I recall, that sequence was published, and terrorists have yet to infect us all.
Besides, based on one of the recent bird flu studies, Mother Nature is equipped just fine to spread the virus herself. Synopsis: a few key mutations allowed H5N1 bird flu to spread easily into human cells in culture, but not from ferret-to-ferret (ferrets spread and contract flu in a manner similar to humans, so they’re the animal of choice for flu studies). However, if the researchers passaged the virus through ferrets by infecting the animal nasally, removing the secretions and infecting the next animal nasally, and so on, the virus was able to spread from mammal-to-mammal. This is an example of the laboratory strain adapting to a mammalian host, which is something that could happen in the real world, too. That’s why it’s important to study these mutations- to make sure we’re prepared for the worst.
Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), we had a practice breakout with the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. While many people are skeptical that things were overhyped, it did give public health agencies the opportunity to see how efficacious their routines are with a virus that was milder than, say, H5N1 or the 1918 virus. While it is certainly sad to see anyone becoming sick or dying, it showed exactly how prepared we are to deal with a pandemic. In addition, it brought a new light to hygiene. Dispensers with alcohol-based hand sanitizer are available everywhere now- in university hallways, at stores, next to gas pumps. People seem to be pushing the cover-your-mouth-when-you-sneeze rule with their kids.
On another bright note, even though our ability to easily travel the globe will certainly facilitate the movement of the a pandemic flu virus, our ability to communicate about it will be even faster. After all, it takes 20 hours to fly from China to America, but it only takes a few seconds to read an e-mail. If an outbreak is apparent, we’ll be able to quickly spread the word and take protective measures. Even if an outbreak of flu is upon us within the next few years, we shouldn’t expect something as dramatic as the 1918 pandemic. After all, we have antivirals to fight the flu, antibiotics to fight secondary infection, and easy ways to pass information amongst ourselves.