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H5N1 Wake Up Call
Recombinomics Commentary 14:30
February 19, 2012

Bruce Alberts says that the research shows that it is very easy for lethal bird flu to develop and it should act as a "real wake up call to the world".

He added: "This is likely to happen at some point in the wild because these viruses are mutating very actively in the wild."

Kudos to Science for cutting to the chase on the H5N1 transmission issues.  The two papers are game changes with regard to the understanding of the risk of a natural and evolving H5N1.  Prior “experts” had claimed that H5N1 would never transmit in humans because it is an “avian” virus, and had not jumped to humans, in spite of many opportunities since the outbreaks in Hong Kong in 1997, and rapid expansion in Asia in 2004, and throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in 2006.

However, two different groups using two distinct sub-clades had achieved efficient transmission in a ferret model involving a small number of natural changes, highlighting the near term potential for efficient transmission.

Although the NSABB has the right to request limitations, they have not made a scientifically valid argument.  Instead, public comments have revealed a serious lack of understand of the scientific literature and the abilities of others to reproduce and improve the transmission based on papers published prior to the acceptance of the papers at Nature and Science.

Both groups have published extensively in the past, and media reports describe the overall findings.  The Science paper uses a clade 2.1 isolate from Indonesia with three changes, which was passed in ferrets to select two additional changes.  All five changes in the two genes have been described previously, although all five have not been reported in the same isolate, although published sequences include four of the five is a single isolate.  The Nature paper uses a different sub-clade ( from Vietnam, but only the H5 is used.  It is on an H1N1 background, and the sub-clade and construct have been described previously.

Thus, any serious program targeting an H5 that transmits efficiently in mammals would already have sufficient information to reproduce and improve the censored results, since there is little doubt that transmission is not limited to the two examples described in the Nature and Science papers.

H5N1 however, remains a poor choice as a bioweapon because it can’t be controlled once it has been released, although interest in a transmitting H5N1 will likely increase due to the attention and concerns expressed by the NSABB.

The concerns have also detracted from the game changing result, as noted in the above quote, which is why the papers should be immediately published in full, so a true discussion of the significance of these results can begin, which includes enhanced surveillance and counter measures such as an extensive H5N1 vaccination campaign to protect against a naturally evolving H5N1.

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