Friday, March 02, 2012

New Scientist: Mutant H5N1 Still Deadly



# 6191



Debora MacKenzie, writing for New Scientist, was one of the first journalists to report on Ron Fouchier’s experiments with a mutated form of H5N1 back in September of 2011, and quoted Fouchier as saying the virus `is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu.’

She also included in her lede: What's more, the virus is just as lethal despite the mutations.


And that was the story, widely reported by many media outlets, since the announcement at a Malta bird flu conference.

This week, however, during an ASM Biodefense panel discussion (see ASM BioDefense Meeting Video Now Online) we got a `kinder and gentler’ description of this mutated virus from Fouchier – one describing it as less than lethal (in ferrets), and `poorly transmitted’.


What, many of us have asked, is going on? 


Well, Debora MacKenzie is back with a follow up report today in New Scientist today, that attempts to reconcile the initial descriptions of this mutated virus with the new one delivered this week.



Mutant bird flu virus still as deadly as first thought

14:06 2 March 2012

Debora MacKenzie, consultant



If after watching the ASM video, and reading this report, you aren’t thoroughly confused, you obviously aren’t paying close enough attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

You might want to check out Deborah MacKenzie's response to a comment on her article.

The commenter asked MacKenzie to explain her September 2011 statement that Fouchier had said ferret-to-ferret transmission was lethal, in the context of her March 2012 statement that "Nothing in his [Feb 29 ASM] talk contradicts the story I heard in Malta."

MacKenzie answered: "...the contradiction you observe is correct - in retrospect. According to my notes, Fouchier said in Malta that the virus spread to ferrets in nearby cages, and remained as lethal as wild H5N1. That is true, even though it now appears the virulence wasn’t apparent until the virus was tested in other ferrets’ tracheas. As you observe, I wrote that it was the nearby ferrets which died. I had no way of knowing it wasn’t: Fouchier did not present those details in Malta, nor did he or colleagues mention it in conversations later. Research that has not yet appeared in a journal is often presented at meetings without much detail – the Rotterdam group thought it important to get the basic observation out as soon as possible, as it shows what a threat H5N1 may be. This led me to write that sentence in a way that turned out to be inaccurate, as more details emerged, which I dislike – but the important observation, that virulent H5N1 can become airborne between mammals, is still correct."

Very decent of MacKenzie to acknowledge an error and try to explain how it came about. I wish more reporters, experts, researchers, editors, peer reviewers, public health officials, and others would do the same!