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Deadly H5N1 bird flu virus could easily mutate to spread from human to human

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
4/11/2014 (2 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists warn that this virus is a mere five steps away from contagion levels

The avian flu, or H5N1 virus was so deadly scientists once halted research as governments feared it might be used by terrorists to stage a biological attack. The dreaded H5N1 avian influenza has since killed 60 percent of the 650 humans known to be infected from it. What kept panic in check was the fact that the virus couldn't be spread between human to human - but scientists now warn that's closer to reality. 

When the healthy ferret developed flu symptoms, such as ruffled fur, loss of appetite and lack of energy - researchers knew the virus had spread through the air.

When the healthy ferret developed flu symptoms, such as ruffled fur, loss of appetite and lack of energy - researchers knew the virus had spread through the air.

Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
4/11/2014 (2 years ago)

Published in Health

Keywords: H5N1, virus, avian flu, mutations, experiments


LOS ANGELES, ca (Catholic Online) - First identified in Hong Kong 17 years ago, the "bird flu" virus has yet to evolve a means of spreading easily among people. Dutch researchers have since discovered that the virus needs only five favorable gene mutations to become transmissible through coughing or sneezing, like regular flu viruses.

The world scientific community now dreads that the H5N1 virus will eventually become transmissible through the air - leading to a devastating pandemic. While the new study suggests the mutations needed are relatively few, it remains unclear whether they're likely to happen outside the laboratory.

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"This certainly does not mean that H5N1 is now more likely to cause a pandemic," Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands says. The coauthor of the study published this week in the journal "Cell." ". But it does mean that we should not exclude the possibility that it might happen."

Scientists used ferrets as the stand-in for humans, because their immune system responds similarly to the disease.

Prior research proved that H5N1 could become contagious in ferrets if the virus was passed through a succession of animals, essentially forcing the virus to evolve at an accelerated rate. Fouchier and his colleagues in this experiments found that the newly contagious viruses had accumulated nine or more mutations.

The authors in the new experiments set out to determine the minimum number of mutations necessary for airborne infection.

Researchers used a strain of the virus that had previously infected a human and altered its genes in the lab. Spraying the altered version of the virus into a ferret's nose, researchers placed the animal in a specially constructed cage with a second ferret who had not been exposed to the virus.

When the healthy ferret developed flu symptoms, such as ruffled fur, loss of appetite and lack of energy - researchers knew the virus had spread through the air.

Exposing ferrets and human tissue samples to a variety of genetically altered viruses, study authors identified five key gene mutations.

Two of them improved the virus' ability to latch onto cells in the ferret's upper respiratory tract. Once there, it could enter the cell, disgorge its genetic material and cause the cell to mass-produce copies of the virus.

"Another mutation increases the stability of the virus," Fouchier said. "The remaining mutations enable the virus to replicate more efficiently. Only two of the ferrets in the study died, but neither death was caused by the flu.

Virologists said the findings were important, as they provided health authorities with a means of discerning whether mutations observed in the wild are dangerous to people.

"This is important work," Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University Of Wisconsin School Of Veterinary Medicine says. "This could contribute to surveillance of avian influenza viruses in nature."

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