Nature publishes first of the ‘weaponised’ flu papers

By Siouxsie Wiles 04/05/2012 4

And it’s Open Access!

Late last year it was revealed that 2 papers submitted to the journals Science and Nature had been sent to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an American committee charged with providing guidance on the potential of research to be misused to pose a biological threat to public health or national security. The papers were said to describe the ‘weaponisation’ of H5N1 ‘bird flu’; just a small number of mutations were found to confer the ability of the virus to transmit easily between mammals (in this case ferrets), an ability ‘wild’ H5N1 lacks.

First the NSABB said the papers should be censored, then they retracted that decision. Well now the first of the papers is out. It’s by Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and colleagues in Japan.

Ed Yong has done a great job summarising the paper over at Not Exactly Rocket Science. But if you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can read it over at Nature because it’s been published Open Access (at least it is at the moment). So from censored to free for all. That’s quite a reversal!

H5N1 is pretty lethal in people, killing around 60% of those known to have been infected with the current Asian strain. However, transmission from birds to humans is pretty inefficient. What caused the media interest was that Ron Fouchier seemed to be implying that the mutant H5N1 his paper described had become easily transmitted between ferrets while retaining its virulence. Scary stuff and very reminiscent of the movie Contagion. It was interesting at the time that Kawaoka kept a very low profile in the media. This is what it says in the abstract of his paper:

“We identified a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus….that was capable of droplet transmission in a ferret model. The transmissible H5 reassortant virus preferentially recognized human-type receptors, replicated efficiently in ferrets, caused lung lesions and weight loss, but was not highly pathogenic and did not cause mortality.”

This does beg the question why Kawaoka wasn’t more vocal about how his findings contrasted with the scenario being painted by Fouchier and the media. But we shouldn’t be complacent. The paper clearly shows how easily H5N1 evolves to transmit between mammals and that wild viruses are accumulating at least some of the mutations that put them on this path.

As Lawrence Fishburne’s character Ellis Cheever says in Contagion:”Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu.The birds are doing that”.

Imai, Watanabe, Hatta, Das, Ozawa, Shinya, Zhong, Hanson, Katsura, Watanabe, Li, Kawakami, Yamada, Kisos, Suzuki, Maher, Neumann & Kawaoka. 2012. Experimental adaptation of an influenza H5 HA confers respiratory droplet transmission to a reassortant H5 HA/H1N1 virus in ferrets. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature10831

PS If you want to support some evolutionary infection work that doesn’t involve flu and ferrets then check out my SciFund Challenge Project, Evolution in Action, on RocketHub.

4 Responses to “Nature publishes first of the ‘weaponised’ flu papers”

  • “The paper clearly shows how easily H5N1 evolves to transmit between mammals …”

    The paper is about genetic modification and doesn’t show anything that’s happened in the evolution of H5N1.

  • but if you infect a random human with it, what do you estimate
    is the probability he/she would die ? From our experience
    with lab-animals and natural infections it’s pretty high.
    Remember all the tigers in the zoo, all the experiments
    with mice,ferrets, the human clusters, Kocyigit , Karo ,…

    When a close family member had it, then you had a good chance to die. A genetical factor had been speculated
    about, but never really demonstrated afaik

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