Saturday, January 21, 2006

Over hyping H5N1 part II

To add from my previous post on the South Otago mayor who thinks that avian flu is nothing more than media hype, I'd like to direct the curious to this excellent series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV) at effect measure discussing the recent mutations detected in the turkey H5N1 strains. This summary is wonderful, firstly explaining what a virus is seeing when it is looking at one of your cells and then what specific structure the influenza virus is looking for. Each part explains in a lot of detail (but in still understandable terms) exactly why many scientists are starting to get distinctly worried about bird flu.

Also, in the fourth part of their series, Revere points out that a mutation found in the viruses polymerase (PB2) gene was found and that it determines the enzymes ability to function in colder temperatures. The cite for the study that looked at the ability of influenza to grow at lower temperatures is here (and it's free!), with the most interesting point is the authors almost psychic prediction:
Our results suggest that a reduced ability of the polymerase complex of avian viruses to ensure replication of the viral genome at 33°C could contribute to their inability to grow efficiently in humans.
Interestingly enough the study is from 2001 and it appears this is exactly what the virus has done fairly recently. Unlike the previous encounter with SARS, which fizzled into nothing as it didn't mutate very often, it's the ability of H5N1 and other influenza viruses to rapidly develop new mutations like those in the turkey strains that makes a pandemic a real threat and not just 'media hype'.