From today’s “this is a bad idea” file comes the news from China that a team of researchers have created a new hybrid flu virus. If that isn’t fun enough, the new bug can go airborne and spread from mammal to mammal. Did no one see Contagion or 12 Monkeys, or read any of the ever-increasing number of terrifying nonfiction books about the potential for worldwide pandemics? Hell, much of the recent zombie paranoia ties back into fear of disease.
The scientists mixed genes from the H5N1 virus with those from the strain H1N1, which was responsible for the 2009 swine flu epidemic. This new concoction has been shown capable of spreading between guinea pigs.
The whole purpose behind this move is to show that, despite the hype surrounding the current outbreak of H7N9 bird flu in China, other avian flus such as H5N1 still pose a substantial threat of global pandemic. It is also possible that two different types of viruses could combine naturally. While there is no evidence that H5N1 and H1N1 have come together, this experiment shows that hybrids like this are a viable risk. These two strains overlap geographically and in the type of animals they infect. While H5N1 tends only to associate with its own kind, “the pandemic H1N1 strain seems to be particularly prone to reassortment.”
Hualan Chen, a virologist at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says, “If these mammalian-transmissible H5N1 viruses are generated in nature, a pandemic will be highly likely.”
That’s a pleasant thought. Have fun trying to sleep tonight.
Guinea pigs “have bird-like receptor proteins in their upper airways in addition to mammalian ones.” This may mean that they are more susceptible to this hybrid than humans, so the ultimate results, and what they could mean for spread amongst humans, is somewhat up in the air. Chen notes that, “these rodents are not good models for pathogenicity in humans.” In fact, none of the test subjects died.
This study is expected to reignite the controversy surrounding creating airborne viruses in laboratory settings, security, and public safety. After much debate, the community of researchers who specialize in studying this sort of thing placed a voluntary one-year moratorium on the further creation of transmissible strains. After all, how many movies and adventure novels start out with some lab assistant stealing vials of some substance they don’t truly understand?