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Can Stuffing Germs up Ferrets Unleash a Human Pandemic?

The Claim: A lab-concocted strain of ferret flu could become a doomsday weapon or bioterrorist threat.

The Contrarian: Wendy Orent, author of Plague, says the much-hyped fears are unfounded: The new strain presents no danger to humans but reveals a great deal about the transmission of flu.

Deadly H5N1 avian flu, long entrenched in Asian poultry, has terrified public health experts ever since it killed a Hong Kong boy in 1997. The disease has caused about 340 human deaths in all, raising concerns it might someday unleash a true pandemic. But that has never occurred. The virus is adept at killing chickens and can infect mammals, but it has never spread among them. Until recently no one knew why.

Last year two scientists independently set out to learn what genetic changes might make H5N1 contagious (and so more dangerous) among mammals. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin at Madison studied a hybrid flu virus made from the avian H5 and the human H1N1 pandemic flu of 2009. Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, genetically altered his H5 strain by changing its receptors so the virus could infect cells higher in the respiratory tract. Then, they stuck their strains deep up the noses of ferrets.

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