In the controversy surrounding the newly developed strains of avian H5N1 flu viruses, scientists and policy makers are struggling with one question in particular: what level of biosafety is best for studying these potentially lethal strains of influenza? In a pair of commentaries, researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the University of Michigan argue their different views of how to safely handle H5N1 flu viruses. The commentaries are published in mBio ® , the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology. This fall, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) set off a debate when it asked the authors of two recent H5N1 research studies and the scientific journals that planned to publish them to withhold crucial details of the research in the interest of biosecurity.
Avian flu, also known as bird flu and more formally as avian influenza, refers to flu caused by viruses that infect birds and make them ill. It is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A strains of the influenza virus. HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza ) - the more virulent one - is the one health care authorities are most concerned about. Avian flu affects several types of birds, including farmed poultry, i.e. chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks. Avian flu is the illness caused by the Avian influenza virus. Bird flu can be transmitted from livestock to wild birds and also to pet birds, and vice-versa. The virus spreads through infected birds, via their saliva, nasal secretions, feces, and feed. Birds become infected when they are in contact with contaminated excrements or secretions, or tainted surfaces.
While some scientists report engineering a super virulent strain of the H5N1 influenza virus, which could potentially wipe out a significant percentage of the human population, another group of researchers from the United Kingdom now reports a discovery that may one day help mitigate the deadly effects of all flu strains. This report, appearing in the March 2012 print issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, describes findings that may help prevent deaths from severe flu outbreaks, especially from seemingly healthy young people. Specifically, the researchers found that immune cells called, "natural killer T cells, " may reduce the overwhelming numbers of another type of immune cell, called "inflammatory monocytes, " which when present in large numbers, lead to lung injury at the end stage of severe flu infection.
An emerging class of long-lasting flu vaccines could do more than just save people the trouble of an annual flu shot. Princeton University-based researchers have found that the "universal" vaccine could for the first time allow for the effective, wide-scale prevention of flu by limiting the influenza virus' ability to spread and mutate. Universal, or cross-protective, vaccines - so named for their effectiveness against several flu strains - are being developed in various labs worldwide and some are already in clinical trials. The researchers recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the new vaccines would make a bout with influenza less severe, making it more difficult for the virus to spread. At the same time, the vaccines would target relatively unchanging parts of the virus and hamper the virus' notorious ability to evolve and evade immunity;
After the discovery of a new influenza A virus in fruit bats in Guatemala, a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that the virus represents no current threat to humans, although scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the University of the Valley of Guatemala, recommend to research the virus as a potential source for human influenza. Leading researcher Dr. Suxiang Tong, team leader of the Pathogen Discovery Program in CDC's Division of Viral Diseases, declared: "This is the first time an influenza virus has been identified in bats, but in its current form the virus is not a human health issue. The study is important because the research has identified a new animal species that may act as a source of flu viruses." The bat influenza virus would need to obtain some genetic properties of human influenza viruses before it could be transmitted to humans.