H5N1 discovered in Japan for first time since 2011 – paper published on how to mutate H5N1

Sunday, April 13, 2014
By Paul Martin

April 13, 2014

JAPAN – Two chickens have tested positive for avian influenza at a farm in Japan where more than 1,000 chickens have died, marking the country’s first case of bird flu in three years, the Agricultural Ministry said on Sunday. The highly pathogenic H5N1 virus was detected through genetic testing of chickens at a farm in Kumamoto prefecture in the south, the ministry said on its Website. A total of 1,100 chickens have died and about 112,000 would be culled, media said. There is believed to be no risk of the virus spreading to humans through consumption of chicken eggs or meat, said Tomoyuki Takehisa, an Agricultural Ministry official. It is the first bird flu case in Japan since 2011 when it was detected in Chiba prefecture, north of Tokyo. – Reuters

Paper published on how to create superflu: The Dutch virologist accused of engineering a dangerous superflu a few years ago is back with more contentious research. In 2011, Ron Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Center took the H5N1 flu virus and made it more contagious. Now the team has published another study with more details on the exact genetic changes needed to do the trick. The H5N1 bird flu is known to have sickened 650 people worldwide, and of those, 386 died. So far the virus hasn’t been contagious in people. But Fouchier’s work, plus some similar research from another lab, showed for the first time that the virus had the potential to change in a way that would make it a real pandemic threat. Only a few mutations were necessary to make the H5N1 bird flu spread through the air between ferrets, the lab stand-in for people. Critics argued that the scientists had created a dangerous new superflu. And they pushed for the recipe not to be openly published. They feared that others would repeat the work and either not adequately safeguard the virus or would deliberately release it.

Before Fouchier and his colleagues published the current work, it underwent multiple layers of review to assess the level of danger it might pose to the public. The team had to get an export license from the Dutch government that normally applies to technology that can be weaponized. The paper was also reviewed by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which funded the research. All that oversight causes delay, Fouchier said. But in the end, flu researchers are still able to do the work they need to do and see it published. “That does not mean that we have reached general consensus about the need to do this type of work, and how to do it safely,”

Fouchier wrote. “But general consensus will be impossible to reach on any topic. We will keep the dialogues going with everyone, but at the same time need to continue this important line of work.” Not everyone agrees with that. “I still don’t understand why such a risky approach must be taken,” says microbiologist David Relman of Stanford University. “I’m discouraged.” Relman served on a government advisory committee that considered whether this research should be openly published. He questions whether these studies really will help give public health officials advance warning of the next emerging flu pandemic. And even if the studies might provide a real benefit, Relman says, we won’t see it for some time. “And we have, meanwhile, just bought ourselves even more risk,” he says. -NPR

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