On January 1, it was revealed that a 39-year-old bus driver, surnamed Chen, had died of the H5N1 (or bird flu) virus in Shenzen, a Chinese city bordering Hong Kong. Unfortunate for him and his family, but other than that you are probably thinking, so what? Since 2003, there have been only 573 confirmed cases of H5N1, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and though 60% of the victims have died, that’s still a vanishingly tiny number of people in a global population of 7 billion.
But if you think like me you might be remembering the science project that was in the news just a couple of weeks ago. Two different groups of scientists from two different countries revealed that they had engineered a strain of bird flu that does make the jump among humans — or at least makes the jump between ferrets, which serve as good models for how humans become infected. And you also might remember that this research poised enough of a real danger that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish their reports of the work — or at least to redact enough material to make it
What is the latest? Hong Kong authorities late on Saturday suspended imports of live poultry and poultry products from parts of neighboring Shenzhen after our bus driver died from a lethal strain of avian influenza. The import ban, which is to last 21 days, comes as the city’s government remains on high alert as the bird flu strain known as H5N1 has resurfaced in recent weeks. Those are exactly the steps that should be taken to control a possible contagion, though they are not a guarantee that no one — such as our 39-year-old bus driver — will get sick.