June 27, 2012
CDC Establishes Influenza H5N1 Mutation Database
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has now published an online repository of influenza H5N1 mutations that have been catalogued around the world by public health authorities. The World Health Organization has created an international network of public health centers to monitor the appearance of influenza virus strains around the world. So, although international surveillance of virus emergence is already mainstay of effective public health strategies today, this effort is notable because it follows on the recent controversy over the new influenza research on genetically altered and potentially dangerous H5N1 strains deliberately created by two laboratories (see here and here). Apprehension over the publication of key genetic changes that make a previously benign influenza virus into one that can spread quickly with severe clinical effects has been the driving force for the concern over whether this particular influenza research posed a unique and irreversible threat. However, the counter-argument has always been that if 5 or so mutations are so critical to the conversion of a relatively inert influenza virus into a dangerous strain, that knowledge needs to be disseminated and used. Such is the new CDC H5N1 database, the H5N1 Genetic Changes Inventory, which attempts to create a central database for public health experts to track viral mutations on an international basis. The database will be updated "on a regular basis." Should virus isolates appear that exhibit the key genetic changes identified by the Kawaoka and Fouchier papers, that knowledge could be used to track their spread and respond with appropriate measures (such as increasing the availability of stockpiles of antiviral drugs; see here for information on the CDC stockpiling efforts).