The most recent bird flu strain claimed another victim today, bringing the number of dead to 27, all in China. So far 127 people have fallen ill, and world health authorities say the new H7N9 flu is a global threat that should be taken seriously. The strain, which has been transmitted from chickens to humans, is so far unable to move from person to person. But scientists are figuring out how other strains could.
The journal Science is publishing two papers today that describe the mechanisms avian flu viruses could use to alter their structure and spread among mammals, including humans. One of the papers studied guinea pigs, which are not necessarily the best way to study the human response to flu—but studies on ferrets, which are a good proxy for people, were halted by a year-long moratorium. That hiatus recently ended, so more papers in this vein are likely to follow.
Some scientists are decrying the research as potentially dangerous—"appallingly irresponsible," in the words of Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientist and past president of the UK's Royal Society.
Fears of viruses escaping into the wild were the main motivation behind the voluntary moratorium scientists imposed last year, which halted research on making bird flu airborne. Virologists got back to work in January, saying the benefits outweigh the risks and promising safeguards that will protect lab workers and the public. This new research could very well re-ignite that debate.