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Five Mutations can make the Bird Flu Airborne

Update Date: Apr 11, 2014 02:58 PM EDT

A team of scientists has revealed the steps needed in order to make the bird flu airborne. According to the Dutch virologist, Ron Rouchier, it would only take five genetic changes to make the H5N1 bird flu an even more dangerous global threat. This new information was recently published for the public, which some critics are weary about.

Back in 2011, Rouchier and his team from the Erasmus Medical Center had created a dangerous superflu virus. In that study, the researchers had modified the H5N1 virus and made it extremely contagious. In this new study, the researchers expanded on that work and detailed the exact genetic changes that would need to occur to make H5N1 airborne.

"Two mutations enable improved binding of the H5N1 bird flu virus to cells in the upper respiratory tract of mammals," Fouchier explained reported by NPR. "Another mutation increases the stability of the virus. The two remaining mutations enable the virus to replicate more efficiently."

These mutations would cause the virus to transmit between ferrets via the air. Ferrets are often used to examine a virus's transmissibility in humans. Critics of this study believe that this type of flu research could impose more harm than good. H5N1 has been tied to 650 cases throughout the world with 386 fatalities. As of right now, the virus is not contagious between people. If the virus were to mutate and become airborne, it could become a huge threat to the world's population. However, Rouchier states that the research he heads will keep them one step ahead of these viruses.

"If someone is infected in the laboratory, there would be serious consequences," Stephen Morse, global co-director of the U.S. government-funded PREDICT Project consortium and an epidemiology professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, said reported by National Geographic.

"By gaining fundamental knowledge about how the influenza virus adapts to mammals and becomes airborne, we may ultimately be able to identify viruses that pose a public health risk among the large number of influenza viruses that are circulating in animals," said Fouchier according to Medical Xpress. "If we can do this, we might be able to prevent some pandemics in the future."

The study, "Identification, Characterization, and Natural Selection of Mutations Driving Airborne Transmission of A/H5N1 virus," was published in Cell.

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