Previously censored research in the journal Science, and another one in Nature, has been released and shows how the H5N1 bird flu virus can be genetically altered in just five steps and transmitted in mammals, resulting in a massive pandemic.
"It seems to be just a few mutations away from gaining the ability to spread from person to person, but despite more than 16 years of fast-paced evolution, it has failed to do so," wrote Nature. "This week saw the publication of the second of two papers identifying mutations that give H5N1 the ability to spread through the air between ferrets... What is most unsettling about them, say many in the flu community, is the evidence they provide that the wild virus could spark a pandemic on its own."
Bloomberg reported the US government had asked the publications not to release the results on concerns the information could be misused by bioterrorists.
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However, the government eventually reversed its decision, arguing the studies should be published in an uncensored form.
"This line of research is critically important because it will help public health officials understand, detect, and defend against the emergence of H5N1 virus as a human threat, a development that could pose a pandemic scenario," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.
Last year, researcher Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and his colleagues were able with just a few genetic tweaks to make H5N1 go airborne in a population of ferrets, CNN reported.
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CNN had this explainer: