This week, at a meeting of experts attending the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in Washington, D.C., Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Center who led one of two groups that developed the man-made strain of H5N1 told his colleagues that two misconceptions about his work have circulated in the media.
The first is that the strain he generated in the lab was easily spread, Fouchier said. In testing the transmissibility of the virus among ferrets in the lab (ferrets are often used to study flu because the animals are a good model for how humans would respond to the virus), he found that, in fact, not all healthy ferrets that were exposed to the coughs and sneezes of sick animals became infected.
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The second misconception, Fouchier said, is that the virus is highly lethal. Ferrets that became infected in the lab didn’t get very sick or die. They did not get as sick as those infected with the commonly circulating version of H5N1. “This virus does not spread like the pandemic or seasonal flu,” he told the experts gathered at the ASM meeting.
In the real world, H5N1 is thought to be highly lethal to humans. Although it infects people uncommonly, it appears to be deadly when it does. Of 587 human cases of bird flu confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2003, nearly 60% have died (though some researchers say the actual mortality rate, if you take into account all the cases that don’t get reported, is much lower).