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Bird flu risk could match 1918 Spanish Flu

The alarm comes from Professor Derek Smith in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. Smith is based at Cambridge University, U.K. Smith makes an alarming parallel to the current incidences of avian influenza worldwide and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, that killed over 50 million people worldwide. The pandemic began in January 1918 and continued until December 1920; historical reviews suggest that the infection was triggered by birds and then spread by birds and people.

Professor Smith is also making a point about the decision to ban experiments on bird flu to see how strains like H5N1 could mutate. Smith was involved with the research and the ban was reported on by Digital Journal back in January 2014.

Here, a study indicated that a highly contagious strain of H5N1, and one that could be capable of airborne transmission between mammals, can be achieved in only a few mutations. This mutation was achieved under laboratory conditions. The science team that conducted the study argued that such research was necessary in order to predict and understand the future threat from bird flu. Other scientists, eventually backed by the European Commission, argued that such research was dangerous because of a risk of a bio-security failure or it could present a “recipe” to a terrorist group.

In his Daily Telegraph feature, Professor Smith continues to maintain that the ban was a mistake and the result is that scientists do not have sufficient knowledge about avian flu and its future evolution. In calling for the resumption of such research, Smith states:

“We are in a situation where we could actually know more information about this virus. Within a couple of months we could know how it could transmit between humans and how likely that is to happen.”

These views are likely to reignite the discussion about taking common pathogens and trying to predict how they might change through mutation: how far should science go?

Smith’s concern is that incidences of avian flu are spreading. In particular, the U.S. and China have seen an increase in cases this year. Cases have also been detected in the U.K. and The Netherlands; and in terms of species spread, the virus has begun to infect penguins.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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