by revere

I’m an epidemiologist, not an immunologist or a virologist but I like reading immunology and virology. It’s interesting, in some ways for me it’s more interesting than reading epidemiology. In an epidemiological paper I can see pretty quickly where things are going (or going wrong) and there isn’t much mystery. But the sheer number of moving parts in a cellular system is amazing and confounding. Navigating through the myriad bits and pieces that appear every week in the scientific literature is tough for experts and even tougher for the rest of us who aren’t experts. Vincent Racaniello over at Virology Blog is a great source of information and I read him in an effort not to fall too far behind and help me understand new papers as they come out. One appeared the other day in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS; hat tip reader hjmler) that was billed in the LA Times as showing that a bit of duck DNA protects that animal from the lethal effects of the flu virus. Well, maybe. There was the ever-present qualifier “might” that seems to appear in many “news” articles based on press releases. To me it’s a signal that a reporter or university media flack is trying to get a scientist to say more than they would to other scientists, and that’s the case here — “Bit of duck DNA might protect poultry from flu, scientists say”:

In a study published online March 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers said they’ve found that a key influenza-fighting gene in wild ducks is absent in chickens. Genetically modifying chickens with a copy of that gene might render them resistant to influenza A, the most common form of flu infecting humans.
“If we could shut down influenza (in chickens), it would be of great commercial interest,” said lead author Katharine E. Magor, a comparative immunologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (Amina Khan, LA Times via

Sounds interesting, so I went to the paper and it is interesting. But I’m not sure what its public health significance is, nor am I sure I want chickens to stop being sentinels for lethal infections with H5N1. First, the science.

Wild birds are the natural reservoir of flu viruses and most of the many varieties of flu don’t cause problems for the birds. They live in symbiotic partnership. But domesticated land birds like chickens don’t fare so well. The same viruses that are harmless to the ducks are lethal to chickens. As Dr. Magor says, preventing that from happening would be of “great commercial interest.” So why don’t ducks get sick and chickens do?



•  Experts warn of double-whammy flu season (Link)

•  H5N1 Situation under control (Link)

•  Alberta hit hard by H1N1 deaths (Link)

•  “Slow-down in Delhi swine flu cases” (Link)
•  Quarry worker tests positive for H1N1 (Link)
•  City on swine flu alert as man dies (Link)

•  Jordan reallocates H1N1 flu vaccine funds (Link)

•  Bird imports from Denmark and Romania banned for bird flu disease  (Link)

•  Suspected H5N1 outbreak in Romania (Link)

United States
•  AL: Etowah County death linked to swine flu (Link)
•  AR: H1N1: Another Wave Coming? (Link)
•  FL: Swine flu claims 67-year-old man (Link)
•  KY: Flu cases rise again in Greene County  (Link)
•  NY: H1N1 expenses close to $200,000 for Western NY (Link)
•  TX: First H1N1 death for Comal County  (Link)

•  ProMED: New Bird Flu Outbreaks in Viet Nam (Update) (Link)

•  WHO: Independent experts to review swine flu outbreak, UN body’s response starting April 12 (Link)