The deadly H1NI virus, which has killed more than 60 percent of the 600 people infected in a dozen countries since 2003, has become more lethal, according to the findings of a new study.
The study, released June 21 in Science, details the five steps taken to make the virus airborne making it easier to transfer from person-to-person. Previously, an individual would need to come into close contact with an animal or another person to contract the disease.
Researchers say two of the mutations created are already found in birds and people; natural evolution could release the remaining three. In the experiment, funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, H1N1 was made airborne and passed between ferrets. Ferrets are the mammals with the closest human reaction to flu viruses.
The altered H1N1 virus didn’t kill the animals, according to the study. It remains unknown whether humans would react to the virus in the same manner.
“It’s now clear that we’re living on a fault line,” continued Smith. “It could really do something. What we need to know is how likely that is.”
The results, researchers say, could help them spot a more dangerous strain down the road, the Associated Press reported.
But the research raises more questions than it answers and concerns remain that the contents of the study could be used by bioterrorists. In December 2011, on the advice of a U.S. biosecurity panel, federal officials asked the researchers not to publish details of the work. They warned the papers could show terrorists how to make a biological weapon.
The benefit of scientists sharing data from the new paper "far outweighs the risk," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Wednesday.
A federal biosecurity panel announced in March that it supported publishing the revised manuscripts, saying it had heard new evidence that sharing information about the mutations would help in guarding against a pandemic. It also concluded that the data didn't appear to pose any immediate terrorism threat. The government agreed in April.
The study was led by virologists Sander Herfst and Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University in the Netherlands.