October 07, 2007
Single Mutation In Bird Flu Adapts To Upper Respiratory Tract

H5N1 avian influenza hasn't spread into humans on a pandemic scale yet because it is not well adapted to spread between humans. In birds it reproduces in a warmer environment and so has genetic variations that make it thrive better at warmer temperatures. However, scientists have now discovered a single mutation that better adapts bird flu to the lower temperatures of the human upper respiratory tract.

MADISON - Since it first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, the H5N1 avian flu virus has been slowly evolving into a pathogen better equipped to infect humans. The final form of the virus, biomedical researchers fear, will be a highly pathogenic strain of influenza that spreads easily among humans.

Now, in a new study a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison report the identification of a key step the virus must take to facilitate the easy transmission of the virus from person to person.

Writing today (Oct. 4, 2007) in the journal Public Library of Science Pathogens, a team of researchers led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine has identified a single change in a viral protein that facilitates the virus' ability to infect the cells of the upper respiratory system in mammals. By adapting to the upper respiratory system, the virus is capable of infecting a wider range of cell types and is more easily spread, potentially setting the stage for a flu pandemic.

A worldwide flu pandemic of highly lethal virus would certainly up-end our lives in a big way. Your odds of survival would go up substantially if you could find a way to stay home for several months and rarely go to stores and other places with people.

A single H5N1 virus mutation found in one patient gave the virus the ability to survive in the cooler temperatures of the upper respiratoy system.

The new study involved two different viruses isolated from a single patient -- one from the lungs, the other from the upper respiratory system. The virus from the upper respiratory system exhibited a single amino acid change in one of the key proteins for amplification of influenza virus genes.

The single change identified by the Wisconsin study, says Kawaoka, promotes better virus replication at lower temperatures, such as those found in the upper respiratory system, and in a wider range of cell types.

Kawaoka expects H5N1 to eventually get the other mutations needed to spread in humans. By that time will we have good technologies for rapidly scaling up vaccine production? If not then the best response I can think of that would minimize economic disruption and loss of life is what I call workplace cocooning. Work and live in the same place, whether that be at home or in a building converted into a live-in workpace.

You can read the full research paper at Plos Pathogens: Growth of H5N1 Influenza A Viruses in the Upper Respiratory Tracts of Mice.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 07 09:54 PM  Pandemic Signs

David Weisman said at October 8, 2007 6:55 AM:

This suggestion might work well for some individuals - but it would contribute to social chaos. Think how many jobs can't be done except at a workplace where many people meet. Think what would happen if doctors and nurses working at hospitals tried to follow your idea!

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2007 6:10 PM:


Granted, health care providers have to get close to their patients. But for a large portion of all jobs we could cut out a great deal of close human-to-human interaction outside of fixed groups. More interactions could be conducted via phone, video conferencing, email, and other electronic means.

Instead of going to stores a lot of goods could be delivered to doorsteps (with people wearing facial masks) without the door opening while the goods are dropped off. Warehouses could have fixed live-in staffs and truck drives who back up their trailers for loading/unloading could stay in their cabs while loading/unloading.

Office workers who work together could move into hotels which have no travelling guests. An entire hotel could be sealed off except for supplies deliveries and trash pick-ups and the people in it could turn it into a massive live-in office.

Factories could put travel trailers in the parking lots and fence around the perimeters. Workers would stay on the grounds between shifts.

We could do this in occupation after occupation.

David Weisman said at October 9, 2007 6:24 AM:

I think a lot of people would have to go into work while the system was being set up, and it would require a lot of changes in large organizations. The most likely implemenation is the other one you hinted at - many office workers and people who work at stores quit jobs and try to find other ones where they can work at home, which has got to lead to chaos. Are the families of coworkers going to leave their houses and join together in a big commune?

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2007 4:15 PM:

Well, first off, whole industries wil collapse in a pandemic. The hotel industry will toss lots of people out of work. Move to use of hotels as office live-in buildings would prevent some hotel workers from getting laid off.

Second, some industries (e.g. making facial masks or online sales) will boom and will need more workers. A lot of those workers (e.g. online sales workers) could work from home.

Families of coworkers: Luckily most people do not live in big families anymore. Lots of singles and couples without children.

I'm not saying this works for everyone. But I'm saying it works for a large fraction of the workforce.

Plus, some family members could swap jobs in order to live and work together. It depends on their occupations.

Also, groups of small businesses could co-locate in order to bring families together. Draw a line around 5 companies with 10 workers each rather than 5 lines around 5 companies with 10 workers each.

Go to work while system is being set up: Things can get done instantly if people want to badly enough.

nate said at December 23, 2007 6:38 AM:

I think you are right about special living/working arrangements, but only some would be onboard. Since chaos will destroy standard industry, every persons "job" will be different. Some will work in search parties for food/supplies or surviving children. Others will maintain security and communication. Science minded will try to detect and prevent/cure bird-flu. Power generators will be worth a thousand times their weight in semiconductors. Some that survive will be immune, while others lucky, but luck will run out as time drags on. It would take a sealed underground lab a long time to come up with a vaccine once supplies are cut off and communication grinds to a stand still. "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" -NE1

Piotr Obminski said at March 1, 2011 1:35 PM:

And I who believed that Bird Flu belongs to the past...

Oh, yes - this post is from October 2007, so it may be true after all.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright