The battle of the viruses mutating on an apparently unstoppable course

Image copyright Jason Simpkins Image caption The virus could mutate and give rise to a more easily treatable form of pneumonia

It might be called the battle of the coronavirus mutants.

The step-by-step development of each virus – produced by scientists – that keeps stalling on the eventual arrival of the ‘workable’ version has highlighted why the fight against respiratory infections must be managed so efficiently.

And, not least, why science must be fast to ensure it avoids tipping into a zombie state.

In the case of the H5N1 bird flu, which has moved from birds to humans with grim frequency over the past few years, we may have finally seen the emergence of a vaccine that offered some protection.

This was confirmed last month after a test run in the US.

It’s the “smoking gun” the experts had all been waiting for.

What we know for sure was that antibodies derived from 1 in 4,000 people who had been infected with the H5N1 virus, were capable of attacking the virus in a way that prevented it from infecting other birds or people.

You can hear more about this on All About Science on 5 live from 13:00 BST this Friday.

This is crucial because there is a growing assumption that it will not just be humans whose lives are most at risk, but farm animals whose animals will carry the virus.

Test results show that the antibodies applied by the vaccines did “have a positive response” in many chickens, turkeys and ducks – but it did not protect them entirely.

“They have antibodies that neutralise, but they can cause them to become infected with the virus,” Dr Tom DeWeese, from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Image copyright NHS

“So we’re not quite there yet.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation is in the process of developing its own vaccine.

The H5N1 mutations would mean that it would work just as well as the US vaccine, but, says Dr Philip Cutts, global co-ordinator for public health emergencies at the WHO, a better-educated public might be less likely to take the chance with their livestock.

“People are concerned about protecting the domestic poultry farming community by jumping to a small piece of avian influenza,” he says.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption More than 180 people have died from H5N1, a type of virus which is very virulent

Dr DeWeese agrees.

“We have to be careful to recognise that the number of people who consume poultry is so much smaller than the number of people who live and use their health system for poultry.

“So if you start marketing this vaccine, I’m not so sure how much public, or public healthcare, attention would be paid.”

Have you ever seen a zombie film? Do you think science would be wiser off avoiding one? Share your thoughts and analysis on the BBC Science Forum .

Your comments

One of the reasons we have so much research here is that it takes so much time to develop a vaccine for something as complex as bird flu.

A lot of the time, advances in the virus take longer than the development of a vaccine.

By reducing the time to develop a vaccine and also to vaccinate people for it, it would be great if all experiments could be well understood, so that vaccines don’t take so long.

Chris, Manchester

Mutations are dangerous to biosecurity as they allow new threats to escape laboratories where the process takes place.

What benefits, if any, does the H5N1 virus possess as it changes to the bird flu family?

You should give up on spraying nanoparticles in the air and keep singing.

In summary.

You should put more mustard down your drain.

Henry, Michigan

What kind of virus is that which is mutating at a breakneck pace? A zombie virus that looks more and more like the one that came before.

Steven, Milan, Italy

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