Of ferrets, handkerchiefs, and bird flu

There is apparently less to worry about than has been commonly thought. Michael Fumento, the anti-worrier, explains:

A flu pandemic can come about in two ways. One way is for the virus to randomly mutate to become easily transmissible between humans. “Randomly” is the key word here. There are no evolutionary pressures to make H5N1 adapt better to humans. Given enough time, H5N1 might mutate so that it could under the right conditions become pandemic. But that could take millions of years, during which time it would be more likely to mutate itself out of existence. H5N1 was first identified in Scottish chickens in 1959. It has been flying around the globe for close to half a century and hasn’t done a number on us yet. There’s absolutely no reason to think it will pick this year or next to do so.

Another scenario is that somebody with human flu could contract avian flu at the same time and the two flus could “reassort” into hybrid avian-human flu. The last two flu epidemics in the 20th century–1957-58 and 1968-69–were caused by such hybrids. We can help reduce this possibility by vaccinating as many people as possible (especially Southeast Asian poultry farmers) against human flu, thus reducing the potential number of “mixing vessels.” Programs underway to keep farmers away from poultry droppings and spittle (birds don’t sneeze or cough) will also help.

A fascinating study in the August 8, 2006, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences would seem to indicate we’re already pretty safe from a human-avian hybrid. Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted three separate studies with ferrets, which are among the few animals known to suffer from and transmit human flu. The ferrets were infected with several H5N1 strains in addition to a common human influenza virus (H3N2) that circulates almost every year. The infected animals were then either placed in the same cage with uninfected ferrets to test transmissibility by close contact or in adjacent cages with perforated walls to test spread of the virus from respiratory droplets.

The research showed that the H3N2 virus passed easily by droplets (ferrets do sneeze and do not use handkerchiefs) but the H5N1 virus did not spread–the same thing we’re seeing in humans infected with H5N1 from birds.

Separately, the scientists used gene splicing to create a hybrid H5N1/H3N2 virus. In other words, rather than letting nature take its course and seeing if the viruses would reassort, they guaranteed that reassortment occurred. They found these hybrids also did not pass easily between the animals. Moreover, ferrets injected with the reassorted virus showed symptoms less severe than those with the pure avian flu. Reassortment appears to have weakened the virus.

One less thing, perhaps, to worry about. But there will be other things soon, of that we have no doubt.

6 Responses to “Of ferrets, handkerchiefs, and bird flu”

  1. Steven Den Beste Says:

    Fumento lists two possibilities: a mutation in a strain of flu alread present in humans, and a case where a human contracts two forms of flu simultaneously and they mix their genes.

    He missed one, and it’s pretty important. It actually turns out to be very difficult for humans to contract avian influenza, and likewise very difficult for ducks and geese to get human influenza. But swine can easily get them both. The scenario that Fumento missed is that on farms where humans, ducks, and pigs all live together in close proximity, pigs could simultaneously get avian influenza and human influenza, and the gene mixing could happen in the swine. Then humans could catch the new mixed strain.

    The dirty little secret of modern epidemiology is that most of the new strains of flu that go around come out of China’s collectivized farms, where farmers, ducks, and pigs do indeed live in close proximity. The nation of China doesn’t want anyone talking about it, for various reasons, and epidemiologists who want to maintain access to China (in order to track new strains of flu when they arise) don’t talk about it much.

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