Laboratory-engineered strains of H5N1 influenza, also known as bird flu, aren’t as dangerous as some have been led to believe, said a scientist involved in the controversial research Wednesday.
The researcher, virologist Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, has been at the center of an ongoing debate about bird flu research among public health and biodefense officials. He made his comments at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research meeting, in Washington, D.C.
Bird flu is lethal more than half of the time it strikes humans. It is also very hard for humans to catch. Most people who have developed bird flu have been in close contact with infected birds; only a few have gotten sick from very close contact with infected people. But virologists and public health officials have worried that the virus might have the potential to mutate so that it could pass more easily between humans, through droplets in the air.
Fouchier and University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka led two separate research studies to test whether that was possible — and discovered it was. Both teams introduced mutations into the H5N1 virus and found it was transmissible between ferrets (a proxy for humans in flu research).