University of Tokyo scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka is making the case for unfettered access to studies in which researchers made a lethal bird flu virus even deadlier by taking it airborne. To those determined to find it, the recipe is already available, he warns, and the mutation could occur outside the laboratory at any moment. All hands to the urgent and lengthy task of developing a vaccine, then. —ARK
Some people have argued that the risks of such studies — misuse and accidental release, for example — outweigh the benefits. I counter that H5N1 viruses circulating in nature already pose a threat, because influenza viruses mutate constantly and can cause pandemics with great losses of life. Within the past century, ‘Spanish’ influenza, which stemmed from a virus of avian origin, killed between 20 million and 50 million people. Because H5N1 mutations that confer transmissibility in mammals may emerge in nature, I believe that it would be irresponsible not to study the underlying mechanisms.
The new work has implications for pandemic preparedness. There is an urgent need to expand development, production and distribution of vaccines against H5 viruses, and to stockpile antiviral compounds. Both studies identify specific mutations in HA that confer transmissibility in ferrets to H5 HA-possessing viruses. A subset of these mutations has been detected in H5N1 viruses circulating in certain countries. It is therefore imperative that these viruses are monitored closely so that eradication efforts and countermeasures (such as vaccine-strain selection) can be focused on them, should they acquire transmissibility.