Influenza Virus Research

Among the many types of bird flu viruses that receive attention from the media, H5N1 is one that often gets confused for H7N9 and receives inconsistent reporting. Despite that, intermittent new reports crop up every now and then explaining how the virus has affected a community. Yet, very few go into depth of how the virus has been making an impact on several levels looking at both the community and global research. In this article we show how two of the most recent reports reflect the impact of the virus on a local and a global level.

The first report comes from a case that was reported about a week ago regarding a 15-month-old toddler that had been infected with the H5N1 virus. The boy, who was from the Phnom Penh district in Cambodia, presented with a fever, diarrhoea and lethargy and was admitted to hospital where his diagnosis was made. Although the virus is known for being particularly aggressive, the boy’s condition turned stable once he had been treated with Tamiflu. While it is unfortunate that the toddler was infected, it is not the first time this has happened. In fact, the toddler was the 18th human to be infected by the virus this year.

Given that researchers have long known about the nature of the H5N1 virus in terms of how it leads to quick worsening of symptoms, and that a fair amount of cases had been reported, one would assume that this would have led to a lot of research. However, rather than resulting in deeper research projects, this knowledge has led to overly cautious measures. A perfect example of that comes from a recent study, which is the second report we consider in this article.

The study, which was published in Journal of Clinical Investigation, was a trial looking into the efficacy of a recently developed vaccine against H5N1. As previous researchers had highlighted that researching a virus that could potentially cause a pandemic and led to security concerns, the researchers of the current study used a synthetic version of the virus. The researchers gave the vaccine to four patients, and took blood samples, which were used to take out antibodies thought to interact with H5N1 viruses. They then tested whether these antibodies would successfully target the synthetic version of the virus. The key findings indicated that the vaccination appeared to affect how the synthetic virus was binding between mutations, so that it blocked the process required for the virus to be transferable between mammals. Based on this the researchers confirmed the importance of studying viruses by using synthetic viruses, and of the potential to develop a H5N1 vaccination for humans.

While the security concerns are understandable, it is still debatable whether a synthetic virus would be of any use, as it could almost be seen as a ‘middle man’. If the synthetic virus is similar to the real virus, then expensive and time-consuming research has to be conducted to establish this. If it is not comparable, then the research and development of vaccinations will prove useless. If it is comparable, then what is to say that the same risks do not apply for the synthetic virus as they would for the original virus. Either way, time and money is lost addressing concerns created from politics rather than addressing research.

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