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Once-Banned Bird Flu Study Yields Sobering Findings
Date:6/21/2012

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 21 (HealthDay News) -- As few as five mutations are enough to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible via airborne droplets between ferrets, according to a new, highly anticipated report.

Because the flu virus affects ferrets and humans in a similar way, the new findings, appearing in the June 22 issue of the journal Science, may shed light on how likely it is that an avian or "bird flu" virus will become pandemic and spread rapidly between humans.

If a new virus emerged, humans could essentially be defenseless against it.

The paper is the second of two whose publication was banned by the U.S. government, which feared that publishing specifics on a sequence of the H5N1 bird flu might prompt bioterrorists to develop and unleash a pandemic.

In April, however, the controversial ban was lifted and the first paper was published in the journal Nature.

Bruce Alberts, the editor-in-chief of Science, speaking at a press conference Wednesday, said he hoped publication of this and a companion paper "will help to make the world safer by stimulating more scientists and policy makers to focus on preparing defenses [against a pandemic]."

Asked whether the report might increase the chances that a rogue scientist would be able to replicate the work, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thought "the benefit of the paper in stimulating thoughts and in stimulating ways to better understand [the virus] far outweighs any nefarious use of the information."

In order to understand how avian flu viruses could become airborne in mammals, the authors of the first Science study first introduced three mutations thought to increase the ability of the virus to spread between mammals into an existing strain of the H5N1 virus.

The virus was then put in the
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