Global travel gives wings to H7N9 bird flu

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Case in point: In 2011, scientists in the Netherlands successfully created a mutant of the H5N1 virus that can pass from human to human through droplets in the air, potentially triggering a pandemic. Their work was highly controversial because of the remote possibility that the new mutant virus could escape or be stolen. Ultimately, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity censored publication of the scientists’ results. A year-long moratorium was called on further research until the issues could be debated.

To date, the research has not resumed, and the scientists involved are distressed. They say that the emergence of this new H7N9 bird flu is a perfect example of why they should continue to study how viruses can mutate enough to jump from bird to animal and from person to person. Others disagree. Simon Wain-Hobson, chair of the Foundation for Vaccine Research in the U.S., wrote in the scientific journal Nature last week, “The world has never been more densely populated. Is it appropriate for civilian scientists to make microbes more dangerous?”

Ab Osterhaus is a leading influenza researcher and the head of viroscience at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. It was his team that successfully mutated the H5N1 into a contagious pathogen. Of the new H7N9 virus, he said he has looked at the genetic sequencing data from samples out of China and finds some “worrisome” mutations that have already occurred in the strain. He said that the greatest risk to the public is not knowing how a new virus can spread, and the only way to know is to experiment.

“This virus might be on the brink of gaining function of transmissibility in humans,” Osterhaus said in a Reuters story reported on NBC News. “I think it’s crucial to know the rules of the game.”

In 2006, the world was preparing for an epidemic of H5N1 that never materialized. Still the disease killed some 60 percent of those who contracted it.
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