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Details are continuing to emerge about the alarming ease with which a laboratory was able to make the deadly A(H5N1) avian influenza transmissible between humans. Just hours ago Scientific American reported that it took only ten lab ferrets to generate the five mutations necessary. Only ten! That's an astonishingly small number. Here is the story of how it was done:

Circulating seasonal strains, such as H3N2, are adept at attaching to the human nasal cavity and trachea, making them easily transferable among people via a sneeze, cough or sigh. But fortunately for us, H5N1, as it has circulated in bird populations, has not yet developed this capability. Fouchier and his team wanted to see if it was possible to give it that power.

So they "mutated the hell out of H5N1," Fouchier said, towering over the podium at the meeting’s Monday morning plenary session. But as it turns out, they hardly needed to. With just a few genetic substitutions, the virus was able to affix to nose and trachea cells a development "which seemed to be very bad news," he said. Fortunately for the lab’s test ferrets, a common animal model for human flu transmission, the flu still didn’t seem to pass airborne from animal to animal.

And that was when "someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid," Fouchier recounted. They put the mutated H5N1 into the nose of one ferret, then took a sample of nasal fluid from that ferret and put it in the nose of another. After 10 ferrets, the virus began spreading from ferret to ferret via the air just about as easily as a seasonal flu virus...

All of the mutations needed to make the virus an airborne threat have already been detected in the wild, but they have not been found together in a single virus "just yet," Fouchier noted. The discovery also confirmed that H5N1 would not need to mingle with a mammalian virus before becoming easily transmissible among us.

Full article by Katherine Harmon, from Scientific American, as reprinted by Yahoo:

Even assuming that this lab can contain the deadly strain indefinitely, and that no insane person decides to recreate the strain and release it into the general population, we are still uncomfortably close to a natural evolution of the virus into a pandemic pathogen. Two to five years, would be my uneducated guess.

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