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1Feb 2013

Tinkering with the H5N1 bird-fluvirus: The mysterious case of the dead ferrets.

In this week's edition of On Science BlogsTabitha M. Powledge pursues the notorious case of the dead ferrets, a mystery worthy of 221B Baker St. 

She begins with a nice roundup of blogs addressing the announced resumption this week of research on H5N1 bird-flu viruses engineered to be transmissible between mammals. Until now, humans appear to have contracted the virus only through contact with birds, especially poultry. But it can't be passed from one human to another. The new research was aimed at making the virus transmissible among ferrets, which respond to the virus the way humans do--or close to it, as I discussed in a post here earlier this week. The researchers doing the work agreed to a moratorium a year ago and unilaterally ended it this week.

But Powledge found out about something that escaped me: the dead ferrets. The ferret research did enable the virus to jump from one ferret to another. But according to one report, the resulting virus was so weakened that it was no longer deadly. Here's Powledge:

Turns out that, while some ferrets did inhale the modified virus, 6 had the virus inserted into their windpipes. It was the first group of ferrets — the ones who inhaled — that survived. The windpipe 6 all died 3 days after the experiment.

Does that mean the research is perhaps not as dangerous as we might think? It's hard to know. What is clear is that this story could have used more reporting--the point I made earlier in the week. Thanks to Powledge for giving me a leg to stand on.

-Paul Raeburn




It was Ron Fouchier who beat this story up at the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI) meeting in Malta in September 2011, when he announced his team had "mutated the hell out of H5N1" and warned that "this is a very dangerous virus".(1) Fouchier subsequently did a 180 degree turnaround on his claims when the solids hit the air-conditioning...

The ESWI is a partnership organisation including manufacturers of influenza vaccines and antiviral drugs. So what was the motive for Fouchier's fear-mongering at this meeting do you think? Fouchier appears to have escaped reprimand for his actions. Has this episode put scientists in a good light and inspired confidence in the general public? I would say no…

What this debacle has exposed is that scientists are engineering possibly dangerous pathogens with completely inadequate ethical oversight. It seems to me that because these people are using animals in their experiments, rather than human subjects, effective ethical processes have fallen through the cracks, despite the fact that these engineered pathogens could have potentially devastating effects on human populations outside the lab.

So what now after this fear-mongering, and now we know the engineered H5N1 virus was not as deadly as we were first led to believe? What is the justification for continuing to fling money at this questionable research?

Given that flu viruses are mutating all the time, should we accept that flu is not a vaccinable disease, and look at other strategies to deal with flu?

For further background, here are links to two of my letters on this topic, i.e.

• A submission to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) re Opposition to Lab-engineering of Potentially Lethal Pathogens (17 December 2012):

• An open letter to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity re the political and ethical implications of lethal virus development (31 January 2012):

Here also is a link to my website which challenges Big Pharma's lucrative over-vaccination of people and animals. It's about time people started looking at the 'big picture' on this...

Ref 1: Katherine Harmon. What Really Happened in Malta This September When Contagious Bird Flu Was Announced. Scientific American. December 30 2011:


Thanks for the link. Part of the problem here was that many folks covered the issues at the beginning of the moratorium and so didn't feel compelled to review them again at the end. 

Paul--I believe that issue has been covered by at least some folks, including us.

Here's one ScienceInsider ( that notes: The ASM meeting also included an extensive presentation by Fouchier of virus transmission and lethality data apparently drawn from his Science manuscript. In general, Fouchier said the data showed that his version of the engineered H5N1 virus was, in contrast to press reports, not lethal when inhaled by ferrets and would not spread "like wildfire" through the air. (Kawaoka had publicly said earlier that his version of the mammal transmissible virus was not lethal in ferrets.)

But yes, there was a widespread misperception/misreporting originally--one outcome of the paper not being published.

I covered this story for the german Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. The best reading on this issue of whether and which ferrets were dying in the experiments by Fouchier and what this really means one can find in a nice piece written by Peter Sandman on risk communication on man made H5N1. Any reporter covering this story should read this article. Have a look here:

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