Thankfully, the world has yet to see a form of the deadly bird flu virus that could spread easily between people and cause a worldwide outbreak reminiscent of the movie Contagion. But don’t rest easy…that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.
As one avian researcher said to me, it is simply a random act of mutation. Perhaps that deadly virus has already occurred in a bird in the wild (and very likely that it has), but that bird didn’t happen to be in front of a human who they could pass it to. The bird dies and the virus with it…it is a random event.
Currently H5N1 avian flu, can be transmitted from birds to birds, and birds to humans, but thankfully not from humans to humans. When it does pass from birds to humans, it is often fatal about 60% of the time.
Two earlier studies by researchers in the United States and Europe have found that with as few as five mutations, H5N1 flu can become transmissible in the air between mammals, including potentially from person to person. Their work was highly controversial because they manipulated viruses in the lab to produce the new mutated strains.
Until now, scientists were not sure whether it was possible these same mutations could evolve in nature. The researchers published their study this week in the journal Science and showed that viruses that have two of the mutations (out of the five) are already common in birds, meaning that there are viruses that might have to acquire only three additional mutations in a human to become airborne transmissible.
So far, the H5N1 virus, which was first detected in Hong Kong in 1997, has infected tens of millions of ducks, geese, chickens and other birds. People who have been infected – so far there have been 606, of whom 357 have died – are mostly those who came into close contact with birds.
The flu research being conducted is seen as vital for scientists working to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and anti-viral drugs that could be deployed in the event of an H5N1 pandemic. However opponents said the work could be misused by terrorists or that the virus might somehow escape from the lab and spread. An international row over the publication of the two papers blew up, leading to a temporary moratorium on such research.