- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Scientists in Vietnam say their research shows that the avian influenza virus has mutated into a more dangerous form that is more likely to spread in mammals.

But the World Health Organization is skeptical.

WHO spokesmen caution that the flu virus “mutates all the time” and that more testing is needed to determine whether the genetic changes mean the H5N1 virus is more transmissible to humans.

No evidence suggests that the virus has mutated to a state in which it can be passed from one human to another.

“There has been a mutation allowing the virus to replicate effectively in mammal tissue and become highly virulent,” the Ho Chi Minh Pasteur Institute in Hanoi said on its Web site concerning its tissue-based research.

The institute said it has decoded genetic material from 24 samples of the H5N1 virus taken from infected humans and poultry. It has been analyzing the samples as part of a study to better understand the virus’s genetic makeup.

Dr. David Nabarro, senior system coordinator for avian and human influenza at the United Nations, said he was aware of the research reports in Vietnam and had requested additional information on the viral strain.

“It doesn’t surprise me because these types of genetic changes are going to occur, and we are on the lookout for them,” he said in Washington.

The laboratory in Vietnam said it has found a genetic mutation in a virus sample taken from a patient who died in the country’s southern Dong Thap province earlier this year.

Vietnam has been the hardest-hit country in terms of human deaths from the H5N1 virus. The death toll in the country has reached 42, about two-thirds of the global toll of 64. The other deaths have occurred in Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. The spread of H5N1 has led to the slaughter of millions of ducks and chickens in Asia, and most people stricken with the virus had direct contact with infected fowl.

Although much of the attention from WHO has been on outbreaks in Asian countries, Dr. Nabarro said, he thinks the next outbreaks are likely to emerge in the Middle East and Africa.

Most governments have been open about bird-flu outbreaks, but Dr. Nabarro said he was not sure whether some countries were hiding human cases of the disease.

Nguyen The Cuong, press and cultural affairs secretary at the Embassy of Vietnam in Washington, said WHO officials have informed the Vietnamese researchers that the viral mutations they found are small.

Maria Cheng, a spokeswoman for WHO in Geneva, expressed skepticism about the significance of the institute’s findings.

“This study looked at only 20 or so samples of the virus from humans and birds, which is not a huge amount,” Ms. Cheng said, given that the “number of dead birds in Asia has totaled 150 million.”

Ms. Cheng discounts fears of an epidemic, “because we haven’t seen any evidence that H5N1 transmits easily except in birds.”

Staff writer Marguerite Higgins contributed to this article.

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