Thursday, March 12, 2009

Avian Flu Incident

Diagram of genetic reassortment in the product...Image via Wikipedia

The accidental release of live avian flu (H5N1) virus could result in dire consequences.

Could this happen? Let’s hope not, but on February 25, 2009, the Canadian press reported that Baxter International Inc. made an "experimental virus material" based on a human flu strain, but accidentally contaminated it with the H5N1 virus. This material was reportedly distributed to an Austrian company, Avir Green Hills Biotechnology, which, reports said, in turn sent the material to subcontractors in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Germany around the first part of this year. Reportedly, 36 or 37 people were exposed to the contaminated product, but none became infected.

This type of incident is a concern because the common human flu strain (H3N2) is potentially a vector for a process called reassortment (the mixing of the genetic material of two similar viruses that are infecting the same cell) that could conceivably mutate the H5N1 into a virulent human flu strain.

Given reports that ferrets which were exposed to this mixture of materials died, it is possible that the mixture contained live H5N1 virus. (Ferrets are susceptible to human flu strains, but they normally do not die from these infections. H5N1 is lethal to ferrets.)

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