Friday, June 22, 2012

Research on deadly H5N1 published, reveals dangers

Dutch and American scientists shocked the world a while ago by revealing that they have successfully modified the H5N1 influenza virus in order to become much more deadly. The study was halted because authorities feared terrorists could use the information in order to create biological weapons. Because just five genetic mutations are necessary to create the deadly variant, there is also a risk that nature itself will 'create' this particular lab virus. Because the benefits of publishing were deemed to outweigh the risks, authorities gave the green light for publishing the results, which has recently been done. The papers from both research groups reveal the dangers of this potentially devastating virus.

Deadly and effective
Ordinary influenza viruses are quite able to spread through the human population, as is visualized by the annual outbreaks of the flu. Luckily, these versions are not really deadly, but other versions of the flu virus are. H5N1, also known as the bird flu, is a nasty variant that kills easily when it gets the chance to infect a patient. However, H5N1 does not spread as easily as other influenza viruses, because it is more suited to infect birds. The lab version of H5N1, by acquiring just five mutations, was shown to be both spreading effectively and deadly in mammals.

Both research groups published their study on this lab version, and revealed how their mutations made H5N1 deadly and effective. They induced five different mutations, that changed several viral characteristics. For starters, it made the virus much more able to infect the nose of a mammal: because influenza spreads through the air, the nose is a suitable point of entry into the body. Furthermore, the mutations made replication of viral structures easier in mammal bodies, which are cooler than those of birds. Both groups showed the mutant killed a lot of ferrets; these animals are used as a model because they respond in a similar way to influenza infection.

All five mutations have already been, separately, seen in nature, which is why it is important to spread knowledge about this potentially deadly virus throughout the scientific community. Because viruses mutate rapidly, we might find these deadly lab viruses roaming in nature one day. Now that we know what we are potentially up against, scientists can start devising methods to counter these deadly viruses, by developing new antiviral drugs. Of course, it could just be that we will not see this lab version developing naturally, but it is good to be proactive about something that could potentially wipe out millions of people.

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