Monday, February 20, 2012

Study on dangerous H5N1 virus to be published

A while ago, scientists discovered how they could make H5N1, a strain of flu virus commonly known as bird flu, much more contagious. Because the virus is extremely dangerous if it manages to spread, the study caused public uproar. Authorities fear the research could be used for bioterrorism purposes, and halted the studies. Now, the scientists have decided to push on with publishing. They feel the benefits of sharing the knowledge outweighs the risk of terrorism.

Basically, what the scientists, working at institutes in the USA and The Netherlands, have shown is that H5N1 only needs to mutate five times 'in the right way' before it acquires contagiousness comparable to an 'ordinary' flu-causing strain. Because 'the bird flu' is rather deadly with a mortality rate of 60 percent, this could cause a real problem if it enters the wild. Current outbreaks in Asia have seen rather limited spread, despite high deadliness.

One would argue that such a dangerous virus is best left alone. But the soon-to-be-published study has revealed that the required five mutations are rather easy to acquire. The responsible scientists feel their work is too important to leave unpublished. By getting the knowledge into the public domain, scientists can make a global effort to develop countermeasures for a possible outbreak of lethal and contagious H5N1.

Flu names
There are many forms of influenza, which is the virus underlying the flu. They are mostly referred to as HxNx, where the x is a number. H and N are short for hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, two molecules present on the viral surface. Each form of these molecules is presented as a number, which means that H5N1 and H1N1, which spread terror as the Spanish flu in 1918, have the same form of neuraminidase.
It is hard to say whether the right choice has been made. By getting the knowledge into the public domain, more scientists are able to improve our ways of preventing natural development of such a virulent H5N1 strain. Because only five mutations are needed and viruses mutate rapidly, one could imagine a strain such as the one produced in the lab to start appearing naturally. On the other hand, sophisticated bioterrorism labs basically get a present handed to them. Though, it is valid to ask whether such high-end labs exist in the first place. Nevertheless, it poses a risk. New studies on the dangerous H5N1 strain are postponed until at least march of this year. Authorities feel they need to acquire more information first on how to conduct research on the virus. 

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