A man has passed away in Shenzhen a week after being admitted to the hospital for bird flu. This is said to be the first bird flu fatality since 2010:
The 39-year-old bus driver living in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, developed symptoms on December 21 and was admitted to a hospital on December 25 because of severe pneumonia, the official Xinhua news agency said.
He died in the early afternoon of multiple organ failure, having tested positive for the H5N1 virus, the report added.
He had no direct contact with poultry in the month prior to getting sick and had not left the city, Xinhua said.
Guangdong’s official newspaper, the Southern Daily, said separately that 120 people who had contact with the man had developed no signs of sickness.
If you think this was just a one-in-a-million death and that we shouldn’t have anything to worry about, think again. Time’s Jeffrey Kluger puts things in context:
Because less than two weeks ago, scientists also revealed that they had engineered a strain of bird flu that does make the jump among humans — or at least makes the jump between ferrets, which serve as good models for how humans become infected. The risk is not just that the virus could escape the lab, leading to some cheesy but not-so-implausible Michael Crichton-type sic-fi horror. Rather, the far more realistic risk is that the virus could fall into the hands of bioterrorists, who could unleash a flu pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 50 million people. This danger is real enough that the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) took the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish their reports of the work — or at least to redact enough material to make it impossible for the bad guys to replicate the virus.
The seemingly pointless viral tinkering that lied to the new H5N1 strain actually did have a point. Only by knowing exactly what an H5N1 virus looks like as it mutates into one that humans could transmit to one another can scientists recognize when the same mutations are occurring in wild viruses. That sensible reasoning likely won’t stop people from seeing a cause-and-effect between the engineered virus and the Shenzen death — and blaming the researchers who did the recent work.
The World Health Organisation has issued a stern warning to the scientists who developed the H5N1 virus:
The United Nations health body said it was “deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences” of work by two leading flu research teams who this month said they had found ways to make H5N1 into a easily transmissible form capable of causing lethal human pandemics.
The work by the teams, one in The Netherlands and one in the United States, has already prompted an unprecedented censorship call from U.S. security advisers who fear that publishing details of the research could give potential attackers the know-how to make a bioterror weapon.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked two journals that want to publish the work to make only redacted versions of studies available, a request to which the journal editors and many leading scientists object.
Update: Authorities report that this strain of bird flu is non-transmittable between humans.