Controversial H5N1 study utilized ferrets as model

Two unpublished, controversial studies infecting ferrets with mutant H5N1 avian flu viruses have questioned if humans will experience similar infection patterns to a particular flu strain that spreads easily in ferrets.  

"The consensus is that the ferret is the most reliable animal model for human influenza," James A. Roth, a member of the NSABB, said, according to CIDRAP News. "However, it is not perfect. The results in ferrets are likely to predict the transmissibility and severity of a given influenza virus in humans. Therefore there is a need for caution when an influenza virus with an H5 hemagglutinin is transmissible in ferrets and has the potential to produce morbidity and mortality in humans. Especially considering that the human population has no immunity to H5 hemagglutinin."
The Department of Health and Human Services followed advice from the independent National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and recommended that key details be withheld from the studies. The department recommended that the journals Nature and Science hold back details of the two studies in which mutant H5N1 flu strains gained the ability to spread through the air between ferrets, CIDRAP News reports.
HHS said it would work on a mechanism to provide the details to scientists who need them. The editors of the journals said that they are considering the recommendation of the government and are waiting to see what plan officials propose for sharing the details with experts.
The concern is that the publication of the reports could lead to the release, intentional or accidental, of a highly dangerous H5N1 virus that could spread quickly from person to person throughout the world. While the H5N1 disease is typically lethal in humans, the virus has not gained the ability to spread easily between people. The fatality rate has been approximately 59 percent in confirmed cases.