When influenza viruses that infect birds and humans meet in the same cell, they can shuffle their genomes and produce new strains that might have pandemic potential. Think of this process, called reassortment, as viruses having sex.
In the last several years, public health officials have been monitoring two varieties of bird flu viruses with alarming properties: H7N9 and H5N8. Scientists at Emory have been probing the factors that limit reassortment between these strains and a well-known strain (H3N2) that has been dominating the last few flu seasons in the United States.
Helen Branswell has an article in STAT this week, explaining that H5N8 actually emerged from reassortment involving much-feared-but-not-damaging-to-humans-so-far H5N1:
Several years ago, these viruses effectively splintered, with some dumping their N1 neuraminidase — a gene that produces a key protein found on the surface of flu viruses — and replacing it with another. The process is called reassortment, and, in this case, it resulted in the emergence of a lot of new pairings over a fairly short period of time.
The most common and most dangerous viruses to emerge — for birds at least — have been H5N6 and H5N8 viruses. Both are highly pathogenic, meaning they kill domestic poultry.
“The H5N1 virus has not gone away. It’s just changed into different versions of itself,” explained influenza expert Malik Peiris, a professor of virology at the University of Hong Kong.
From the Emory study, the good news is that “packaging signals” on the H5 and H7 viral RNA genomes are often incompatible with the H3N2 viruses. That means it could be difficult for segments of the genome from the bird viruses to get wrapped up with the human viruses. But mix and match still occurred at a low level, particularly with H5N8. Read more
Emory influenza researchers Richard Compans, Anice Lowen and John Steel are co-signers of a statement announcing the end of a self-imposed moratorium on H5N1 avian flu research.
Last year, an international group of researchers called for the moratorium after public concern over studies of H5N1 transmissibility in ferrets, a model for spread of infection between humans. The group of researchers has now recommended ending the moratorium, citing safeguards and safety review procedures put in place by the National Institutes of Health and authorities in other countries. From the letter published today in Science and Nature:
In January 2012, influenza virus researchers from around the world announced a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. We declared a pause to this important research to provide time to explain the public-health benefits cheap oakley of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight, and communication) regarding these experiments.
…Thus, acknowledging that the aims of the voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others, we declare an end to the voluntary moratorium on avian flu transmission studies.
Dan Vergano has a more extensive story in USA Today.
Compans is professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine and scientific director of Emory’s Influenza Pathogenesis and Immunology Research Center. Lowen and Steel are assistant professors of microbiology and immunology at Emory and IPIRC investigators.
The scientists in the lab of Richard Compans, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory, are hard at work, imagining the unimaginable: A time when patients can self-administer flu vaccines. A time when vaccination does not require exposure to inactive viruses. A time when a universal vaccine could protect from all varieties of influenza: swine, avian, seasonal and strains still emerging.
Richard Compans, PhD (right), with colleague Mark Prausnitz, PhD, from Georgia Tech
But it’s not just hope that motivates them as they work. Emory’s scientists are fighting the clock against another possible future: a time of pandemic and uncontrollable virus mutation. The recent emergence of H1N1 and H5N1, known colloquially as swine flu and avian flu, have added an even greater sense of urgency to their task.
“The H5N1â€”the virus derived from avian speciesâ€”has a 60 percent mortality,” says Emory microbiologist Sang-Moo Kang, PhD. Yet that strain of influenza hasn’t resulted in many human deaths, because, so far, avian flu spreads only to humans who are in contact with infected birds.