KSJ Tracker February 1, 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

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