It does sound frightening. H5N1 or the bird flu virus is just five are some other small number of mutations away from being a readily-transmitted human disease that can kill quickly and for which there is no good cure. That's a recipe for pandemic and it ought not be handed out on the street. But another argument has carried the day - even more frightening is the prospect of a global health system with few tools to respond should nature's own meanderingly dangerous evolutionary habits perform the same trick as genetic engineers can now imagine. Many and perhaps most tracker readers are at least generally familiar with long arguments over open publication of research on genetically-modified bird flu. The collective decision was yes, last month Nature carried the first of the two papers in question, from a US team, and this week Science follows with a report from the Dutch team that has performed a similar experimental investigation. This is the paper that got the heavier scrutiny. Its research, as has already been widely reported, developed an altered and experimentally evolved version of the virus that is a ready contagion in a lab animal, the ferret, previously was not easily susceptible to natural H5N1. But the technical details, while many experts were able to figure most of it out, have not been formally circulated.
Maybe it's not that easy, anyway. To get silly for a moment, maybe your dotty grandma's old Chevy Nova is just four mechanical changes and a software update from being a potential champion NASCAR sprinter. Like, a billet steel new crankshaft and bored-out block, full-spec fuel injection, complete roll cage, radical suspension and tire upgrades, and nana swapped out for Dale Earnhardt Jr. And no mufflers to speak of. Not many corner garages could do that. And it'd probably still be a crappy old Nova that'd hit the wall in the first turn.
The journal's editors gave it big space along with a teleconference with authors and other authorities, commentaries from the lead author and by the editor-in-chief, Bruce Alberts, and with six companion papers such as one from a Univ. of Cambridge team on the potential for a natural outbreak of a form easily transmissable among people. It even put the whole package on open access for non-subscribers (see Grist below). For reporters, doing the story is more obligation than it is intellectually satisfying and fresh journalism. The issues have been covered. The first shoe, at Nature, was perhaps the less significant of the two papers but did prompt coverage too. Yet the explanation of this package's message and significance must be sober and clear. Several big hitters took a swing at it.
- NYTimes - Donald G. McNeil Jr.: Bird Flu Paper Is Published After Debate ; Tightly organized, good use of quotes from the lead author on his own deep misgivings over the work as its results became clearer. McNeil's story encourages thought that, as work will be in the open, few researchers will dare stir up trouble for themselves by imitating the Dutch team's full protocol
- USA Today - Elizabeth Weise: Paper on altering bird flu to be published despite concerns ;
- AP - Malcolm Ritter: Bird Flu Study Published After Bioterror Debate ;
- Reuters - Kate Kelland: Bird flu pandemic in humans could happen any time ;
- Wall St. Journal - Gautam Naik: New Bird-Flu Study Shows' Virus's Pandemic Potential ;
- BBC - Pallab Ghosh: Bird flu 'could mutate to cause deadly human pandemic' ;
- Guardian (UK) Alok Jha: Study shows how easily pandemic H5N1 bird flu could evolve ; Like others, covers the bases. Of possible interest in the craft department is Jha's correction - he initially referred to ferrets as rodents. More like weasels, one offers. One also sympathizes. You write frantically, fastidiously checking as you go. Along comes something secondary in importance for which surely you think you know the right phrasing. Bam an email reaches you or an editor saying something impolite about your fund of common knowledge. Maybe that's what happened. It's a familiar tale of newsroom woe.
- LA Times - Eryn Brown: Scientists create bird flu that spreads easily among mammals ; One suspects the reporter did not write this hed but nonetheless - is it naive, or smart? Can't expect most readers to remember the heavy reporting of the gist of the work's result. But the news is not that, but that the details are now published. One notes that the same issue arises elsewhere in several other stories bulleted above and below.
- Time Magazine - Alice Park: H5N1: Bird Flu Pandemic May Be Closer than Thought, Study Finds ;
- PostMedia News (Canada, via Vancouver Sun) Margaret Munro: Bird flu can mutate quickly: scientists / Delayed experiment results show virus is a few mutations away from triggering pandemic ;
- NPR - Nell Greenfieldboyce: Journal Publishes Details On Contagious Bird Flu Created In Lab ; This may over-imply things in the lede even if it is true: "Anybody and everyone can now look in the journal Science and read about how to make..." etc. It may be overly fussy to huff that reading something and knowing how to apply are not equivalent. But ... plenty of people will be able to do both. Greenfieldboyce includes the link to Science to make it especially easy for anybody and everybody to see what she's talking about.
- Wired - Brandon Keim: Mutant Bird Flu Study Fuels Fears of Airborne H5N1 ; Keim gets right to the real point that's been in this news for months now: "But if there were any doubts about H5N1's ability to become airborne, they're gone."
- Nature News - Ed Yong: Influenza: Five questions on H5N1 ; Just the thing for Nature's more sophisticated readers - the gist of the news over at Science, and lots of easy-to-read prose that isn't shy about using a load of technical terms too.
- LiveScience - Wynne Parry: Pandemic? How Mutant Bird Flu Goes Airborne;
- ... is more out there too.