This tiny virus has made big news lately, killing a man in southern China and causing a national security scare in the United States. The culprit, shown here in gold? H5N1, or avian flu.
Avian flu rarely jumps from human to human, which is fortunate because the virus kills about 60 percent of people it does infect (they usually get it from close contact with poultry). Researchers from the Netherlands and from Wisconsin caused a stir in December when they published a paper revealing how they’d made avian flu go airborne in ferrets, genetically engineering H5N1 to be highly contagious in mammals. It’s likely the strain would work the same way in humans. This research could be important for understanding how the flu virus evolves and if it’s likely to become highly transmissible on its own, but U.S. government officials, citing biosecurity fears, convinced the researchers and the journals that published the research to redact key details.
Meanwhile, avian flu flexed its muscles in Shenzhen, China, killing a 39-year-old bus driver and triggering a poultry import ban from that area in Hong Kong. The man was the first human avian flu death in 18 months.