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Mutant bird flu won't slay ferrets, people

Breathe easy, say boffins, as publish-and-perish controversy rages

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A mutated version of the bird flu virus(AKA H5N1) created in a lab cannot be transmitted aerially between ferrets and is unlikely to escape and threaten humans, says the scientist at the centre of an ethics controversy over the threat his research poses to public safety.

In late 2011 Dutch researcher Ron Fouchier was reported as having created a mutant version of bird flu that was lethal to ferrets and could be transmitted aerially - ferrets breathing on or near one another could spread the virus.

Early reports on the research sparked debate on just what Fouchier should be allowed to publish, given that the recipe for a lethal, aerially transmitted, virus is just the kind of thing nasty people might be interested in obtaining to tune as a weapon to be used against humans. Even accidental release of such a virus, it was argued, was so dire a risk that the US government asked the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to consider whether or not research on these mutant viruses should see the light of day.

The NSABB eventually recommend that any publication of the research should “… not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm.”

Fouchier this week revealed more details of his experiments at the ASM Biodefense conference where he said the virus has proved less lethal to ferrets than originally thought, and also difficult to transmit aerially.

He also used his time on a panel at the conference to show that the virus would likely not spread very far or fast should it escape a lab. Another piece of good news is that ferrets exposed to normal, everyday, seasonal influenza coped better with the mutant flu, again reducing its lethal potential.

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