As a controversial study of the H5N1 avian influenza virus published online today in Science shows, researchers are keenly interested in how mutations in the virus' genes might enable it to become transmissible in humans. Now, a new H5N1 Genetic Changes Inventory is available online to help scientists keep tabs on how the virus is evolving and spot mutations that might spell trouble.
"We thought it would be useful for people to know what changes they should be looking for," says Nancy Cox, an influenza researcher at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, who helped assemble the inventory with researchers from around the world. "It's not so much that we want people to focus on one mutation or another, but to know if there are combinations that confer certain properties" that might threaten humans, such the ability to move through the air from person to person.
The ability to quickly recognize emerging genetic changes is "essential" for robust public health surveillance, notes a statement from the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Influenza Reference and Research at CDC, which will maintain and update the inventory. The color-coded list identifies documented mutations in key viral genes, along with literature citations and a description of how the mutation is believed to change biological function. For instance, notations next to the mutations described in today's Science paper, from a laboratory led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, notes that they make the "H5 virus transmissible among ferrets."
Cox says discussion of creating and publishing the inventory began before controversy emerged late last year over publishing Fouchier's paper. "We wanted to be more organized," she says, "about how we provided critical information to our surveillance partners as to what changes they should be looking for."