By Kyra Hall
Ever since it was first transmitted to humans through contact with domesticated fowl, the bird flu has been at the center of a potential pandemic panic. The virus is not contagious among humans in nature, but a team of Dutch scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands endeavored to determine what mutations would have to make place in order for the virus to spread from person to person. They found five key mutations, two of which have already occurred in nature, which would make the H5N1 virus communicable among humans. The findings of the scientists were surrounded by controversy, particularly because some believed that a bioterrorist could use the findings to engineer a virulent new form of avian flu to unleash on the world.
After intense debate, the scientists were allowed to publish their findings uncensored. They proclaimed that the information was too valuable to preventive medicine to keep under wraps. With the findings published, medical researchers are better equipped both to develop vaccines for the virus and to monitor its mutations for dangerous signs. Wild birds as well as domesticates like chickens, they carry the virus among them. It circulates and mutates rapidly, as any flu virus does, and scientists pegged it early on as a high-risk strain. In order to prevent a major pandemic, scientists will be preparing vaccines and watching for the signs of the five mutations needed to make the virus communicable among humans.
The scientists also observed that as the virus increased in communicability, it decreased in deadliness. Their test subjects were ferrets, an animal that catches the same kinds of influenza that humans do. Among the ferrets, the survivability rate went up with each mutation. There is no way to know for sure how the virus would behave in a human population, but the decrease in deadliness as it mutates is encouraging. Some are still worried that a bioterrorist will create their own strain of the virus, but the benefits of an early warning for bird flu outweigh the risks.