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

id. Currently available vaccines and antivirals are effective treatments for this engineered virus.

"Stockpiling H5N1 vaccines and antivirals will be important for pandemic preparedness," he said, and flu trackers too can use this information when they develop vaccines in the future. "Just as for a seasonal flu vaccine, it will be important for an H5N1 vaccine to be made to a closely related virus, so knowing which mutations may confer transmissibility will help prioritize vaccine candidates," Kawaoka explained.

The new data also help advance science by increasing the understanding of the basic biology of flu transmission. "Sharing the data with other scientists will lead to important additional discoveries that may aid the development of improved vaccines and therapeutics," Kawaoka said.

There had been doubt that the bird flu could mutate and cause a pandemic, said microbiologist Joseph Sriyal Malik Peiris, of the University of Hong Kong. He was a co-author of a journal editorial accompanying the new study. He said this research does suggest that bird flu can mutate. "It suggests that the H5N1 virus can potentially acquire transmissibility in humans. However, whether it will ever do so is another matter."

While there have been sporadic cases of bird flu in humans, these have been traced to people directly handling live birds, for instance while working in a poultry market.

Importantly, this research and its publication are not a threat to U.S. security, Peiris said. "This research only tells us that the mutated H5N1 transmits in ferrets. It also tells us that the mutated virus no longer kills ferrets," he said. "Why would anyone who wanted to 'create harm' put so much effort into generation of such a virus with so much uncertainty on how it would work in practice?"

But, Peiris noted, the study "is important for pandemic risk assessment because it gives indications of the mutations that we should be watching out for."


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