Perhaps the most underreported story of the year given its importance. It beggars belief that this work was a) funded b) carried out by researchers. They've only gone and made genetic alterations to the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus which allows it to a) become an airborne infection b) readily infect humans.
H5N1 is known to have infected around 600 people, mostly in Asia and Egypt. About 60% of the people it infected died from it. That sounds very ominous, but it may be that many more have caught it, but not become so sick that they came to the attention of medical authorities. So, the 60% fatality rate is probably way too high an estimate for the actual lethality of the virus. From memory, I think the 1918 Spanish flu killed about 5-10% of those who caught it, but it was much more infectious than 'normal' flu.
he experiments on the genetically altered H5N1 were done on ferrets. They are regarded as a very good model for human flu transmission studies. The researchers had to make five different genetic alterations to get the desired result. All of these mutations have been seen in wild or domestic birds, but individually. It might be that there's no way the five changes required could occur in nature in the same strain.
So, it might very well be the case that this 'Armageddon' virus could never exist unless we made it. Does it therfore seem like a good idea to conduct laboratory experiments to create one? Of course, it's good to know that a genetically modified H5N1 flu virus poses a threat to humans, but the dangers inherent in proving it seem much too great. It's not that long since the foot and mouth virus escaped from a lab and infected cattle in the UK.
Link to story:
CIDRAP >> H5N1 transmission experiment stirs concern