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Avian influenza could evolve into dangerous human virus

Erasmus MC researchers have discovered that the H5N1 influenza virus (bird flu) could develop into a dangerous virus that can spread among humans. To achieve this in a laboratory, they introduced a number of mutations to the virus that could also occur in nature.

Pandemic
The discovery will enable scientists to recognize in time when a virus becomes a threat to public health, thereby possibly preventing a pandemic.

Transmissible
Of the 600 people who have to date been infected with the H5N1 virus worldwide, 60 per cent have died. Avian influenza cannot be spread from one person to another by sneezing or coughing.  Scientists worldwide have been concerned with the question whether the virus could change into a virus that can spread among humans. “We have discovered that this is indeed possible, and more easily than previously thought”, says Ron Fouchier, researcher at Erasmus MC. “In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air. This process could also take place in a natural setting.”

High security
The discovery is important as it could prevent a severe pandemic from occurring. Fouchier: “We now know which mutations to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
Erasmus MC met the highest possible safety standards in this study. No risks were taken with regard to humans or the environment. The experiments were carried out in a special high security laboratory. A permit was granted by the Ministry for Infrastructure and the Environment (I&M) for the study. In addition, the safety was monitored by international experts, partly because the study was commissioned by the American National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Date published: 27 November 2011