The results of a controversial scientific study was published yesterday outlining the dangers of a potential H5N1 outbreak.
The virus in its current form cannot easily be spread amongst humans in its current form because it cannot travel through the air. So the reason for the study was to find out what changes in the H5N1 virus were necessary for it to become airborne and spread rapidly amongst humans. They genetically modified the virus to do just that, and found that it only required mutations in five locations for a contagious strain to emerge.
The scientific team that made the discovery was lead by Ron Fauchier at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, who infected ferrets (ferrets can catch the same flu that humans do) with the virus that contained three engineered mutations. They found that once infected the virus underwent two additional mutations on its own and soon became airborne.
Only 600 humans are known to have caught H5N1 in the last decade, but more than half died from it.
Critics of this kind or research worry about inadvertent contamination or the possibility of a rogue scientist using it to create a biological weapon. Proponents believe genetic engineering is necessary to insure countermeasures are in place should an outbreak occur.[source: New York Times]