|Ferret, photo by Mika Hiltunen|
It all started with experiments on H5N1 avian influenza virus that were meant to study what mutations can increase its transmissibility in ferrets (commonly used as a model animal for influenza research). Two virologists in different countries – Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands and Yoshihiro Kawaoka in the USA/Japan – have managed to create H5N1 strains that are transmissible between ferrets (and thus, potentially, between human beings) and want to publish their independent results in Science (Fouchier) and Nature (Kawaoka). The question that these researchers are willing to answer is: can H5N1 cause a human pandemia, and if yes, what mutations would allow it to do so? Fouchier argues, for instance, that knowing the mutations will allow the researchers to look for them in the field, thus being proactive against the virus spread.