Scientists: Just 5 Mutations and Bird Flu Goes Airborne
But it's not known if those mutations could happen outside a lab
By Arden Dier, Newser Staff
Posted Apr 11, 2014 8:54 AM CDT
Infectious particles of the avian H7N9 bird flu virus emerging from a cell.   (AP Photo/Takeshi Noda/University of Tokyo, Science)

(Newser) – H5N1 has killed 60% of the 650 humans it's known to have infected in nearly two decades, making it an incredibly deadly but difficult to transmit virus. A new study tries to answer the question of how little it would take to make bird flu easily spreadable. The conclusion: 5 gene mutations. Controversial Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier in 2011 found the virus could go airborne—something health officials fear could mean an overwhelming pandemic—with nine or more mutations in ferrets, whose immune systems react to H5N1 much as our own do. He and his fellow researchers set out to find the minimum number of mutations needed to make that happen, the Los Angeles Times reports.

A ferret was infected with a genetically altered version of the virus and made to share air with another ferret—who eventually became sick. The researchers then uncovered the five mutations at play, two of which made the virus' ability to adhere to respiratory tract cells more robust. The other mutations bolstered the virus' stability and ability to replicate. Two big things to keep in mind: One, it's not known how likely these mutations are to occur outside a lab setting. "This certainly does not mean that H5N1 is now more likely to cause a pandemic," says Fouchier. Second, the altered virus wasn't as deadly as H5N1; Fouchier suggests this is because it hit upper, not lower, airway cells. But critics still say toying with H5N1 is dangerous. It could be some time before we see any benefit from the research, a microbiologist tells NPR, "and we have, meanwhile, just bought ourselves even more risk."

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Apr 11, 2014 5:08 PM CDT
I just went over this with a microbiology professor today: the typical estimated random mutation rate for an organism of this sort is 10^-8. Now, this article says that a minimum of 5 mutations are necessary for bird flu to become viral airborne. This leaves us with a maximum 10^-40 chance that these 5 necessary mutations will occur; note that this is without including the likelihood of this ever happening outside the lab. The point is that the odds of this happening are astronomical. This story is sensationalist (much like the entire news coverage of the bird flu was). More people die yearly from the regular flu (~250,000) than from more exotic and feared strains like H5N1 (386 since 2003: )
Apr 11, 2014 2:53 PM CDT
Still beating that bird flu drum. Ebola has a 90% mortality rate, is easily transmitted, and impossible to cure. That and it's already out in the public marching around the Zambian countryside. If it can get into a major city there will be no controlling it. But hey no one cares about Africa, bird flu hits Asia which is a major trading partner (and economic rival) so we need to focus attention on this and ignore the real danger while it slowly grows.
Sam the Sham
Apr 11, 2014 1:12 PM CDT
Thank you government for, once again, trying to terrify me over things I have no control over (along with global warming, Radon gas, killer bees, Islamic terrorism, etc.). Meanwhile the unteachable in Guinea are attacking Ebola clinics and releasing a true terror that kills 90% of those infected. Of course, I cannot do anything about that either.