In the (scientific) news – Bird flu

Work has just been published on the possibility of the H5N1 avian influenza virus mutating into a form which would be transmissible by humans, to whom it is deadly. Should this mutation, or set of mutations, occur the current World Health Authority statistics, which show 332 people have died of the virus since 2003, could expect to increase many times.

A team of researchers in the Netherlands have identified the five genetic changes which could allow such a pandemic to start, and a team at Cambridge (UK) led by Prof Derek Smith studied the genetic structure of 3,000 bird viruses and 400 that occur in humans to calculate the likelihood that these mutations could occur naturally. Whilst is seems that the possibility of this is remote, Prof Smith has indicated that out of the five mutations necessary for the change to the virus to allow transmission through human contact, two of the mutations have already been observed in the bird population, leaving just three, which is on the borderline of the possible, may happen in the future.

Muy Interesante double page on Prof Derek Smith. Picture © James King-Holmes

The picture is one of a set of my portrait images of Prof Smith, used as a double-page spread in a Spanish magazine. It shows the virologist looking ‘through’ the computer screen at an antigenic cartographic ‘map’ of one of the human influenza sub-types. Such data is used by the World Health Authority to select strains for manufacturing vaccines.


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