Tripp, the associate director of the Influenza Pathogenesis and Immunology Research Center at the University of Georgia and Emory University, was one of the researchers into transmission of the H5N1 bird flu virus who agreed to a “voluntary pause” on that work.
“Everyone agreed to take a pause on the research until we had an understanding of what we really wanted to go out to the audience,” he said. “At the end of the day, all of our research comes from funding made by the public. We need to properly educate them on why it is important to do this – and what happens if we stop doing research like this.”
Public dissemination about work into flu transmission is important to advance scientific understanding, Tripp said.
“The features that contribute to transmission are poorly understood because of the fact that there’s not enough publication of the material,” he said.
In the current paper, for instance, four of the mutations that conferred greater transmission between ferrets were in the hemagglutinin gene, where it changed the preference from avianlike cells to cell receptors found in ferrets and humans.
“There’s a lot of thinking that that is sort of the barrier for (infecting a certain species),” Tripp said. “This is what keeps those viruses from jumping.”
Even with these changes, it is still important to keep the relative risk in context, he said.
“The ability to do reverse genetics and actually make a virus that can be transmitted and replicate in man is unbelievably hard,” Tripp said. “Nature has been trying to essentially do that for a long time with the H5N1s, and we still don’t have anything.”