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Once-Banned Bird Flu Study Suggests Pandemic Threat Is Real
Date:5/2/2012

By Denise Mann
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, May 2 (HealthDay News) -- Data in a formerly banned study detailing how the H5N1 avian (bird) flu virus can morph -- with the possibility that it could spread from person to person and cause a global pandemic -- may help nations prepare for the impending threat.

That's some of the motivation for lifting the ban and publishing the study in the May 2 online issue of Nature, experts say.

The initial ban applied to two studies slated to be published in two medical journals, Nature and Science. In December, the U.S. government intervened, requesting that both journals censor some of the data for national security purposes. The concern was that terrorists might use the information to create a lethal biological weapon.

The ban was lifted in April, after the U.S. government conducted a risk assessment in March. Nature also commissioned an independent assessment. Both showed that publication would confer more public benefit than risk.

In the Nature study, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and colleagues tweaked the H5N1 virus using genetic material borrowed from H1N1 'swine' flu to see if it would transmit easily between ferrets -- an animal model thought to be closely related to humans.

It did.

These genetic changes can make the virus easier to transmit, the study found. Knowing their footprints can help researchers know what to look out for and hopefully catch the virus early before it begins to spread.

"H5N1 viruses remain a significant threat for humans as a potential pandemic flu strain," Kawaoka said. "We have found that relatively few mutations enable this virus to transmit in mammals."

The information provided by this study is important as the virus could mutate on its own. Now "we can better prepare should a pandemic virus emerge in nature," Kawaoka sa
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