Friday, January 27, 2012

Dangerous Science

Researchers have reportedly uncovered a dangerous secret, and the way the scientific community chooses to proceed could be a matter of life and death.

The issue at hand is the creation of a modified H5N1 ("bird flu") virus. This is the flu virus that caused global panic several years ago, killing millions of farmed birds and forcing mass-culling of hundreds of millions more to prevent the spread. Hundreds of humans were infected as well, and of those more than half died. This is what sets H5N1 apart -- its alarmingly high mortality rate. Seasonal flus are rarely deadly except in individuals already at risk due to other conditions. H5N1, in contrast, can easily take down a healthy young adult.

A new man-made bird flu virus is easily transmitted in mammals
(image from thebirflupandemic.org)
Despite the lethal potential of H5N1, previous outbreaks have not resulted in a global pandemic. This is because the spread of bird flu in mammals is very limited - essentially restricted to individuals directly handling infected poultry. A fortunate property of an otherwise very unfortunate virus. Or at least that used to be the case.

Now two groups of scientists have reportedly created a new form of H5N1 that is easily transmitted in mammals.