Despite U.S. concerns that new findings on avian flu could assist bio-terrorists, researchers have gone ahead and published a report that says airborne transmission can occur.
A research team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of virology at the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo, published its findings May 3 in the online version of the British journal Nature.
The decision came months after U.S. officials objected to making the research public.
A major finding is that just four mutations were needed to create an avian flu virus that could be easily transmitted between mammals.
Last December, a committee of experts in the United States asked that part of the paper be deleted due to concerns that the research findings could be used by bio-terrorists.
If a highly lethal strain of avian flu was transmitted among mammals, it could lead to a pandemic.
Kawaoka and his team genetically engineered 2.1 million mutations to the avian flu virus to find a mutation in which the virus would become more easily transmitted to humans. Sample cells taken from the human lung and respiratory tract were infected with the mutations to see if the virus could be transmitted.
In an experiment using ferrets, the research team found that only four mutations were needed to come up with a virus strain that could be easily transmitted among the animals.
One mutation in the virus has already been found in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. That mutation was also found in the virus strain that was found in Japan two years ago.
"The influenza virus can mutate very easily," Kawaoka said. "While conducting sufficient monitoring, there is also a need to check on the characteristics of other mutations. Resumption of research on avian flu should be carried out as soon as possible."
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