As far as I know (which certainly is not much when it comes to biology!), H5N1, a.k.a. the avian (bird) flu is verified with a polymerase chain reaction procedure which reads the DNA code of a virus. It stands to reason then that a genetically modified strain would stand out as, well,a modified/new version of H5N1? I'm wondering why the medical community is not checking to see if the strains of H5N1 found in recent bird flu deaths are genetically modified, or not reporting their findings if they are.
There is a modified version of H5N1 that was genetically engineered to be airborne and easily transmittable between mammals (not typical in nature) in international efforts by labs in the Netherlands, USA, and Japan. In short, they made H5N1 an even better potential killer as one would not need direct contact with birds to become ill and would be able to contract it much easier from an infected human. Late last year, there were two separate papers submitted describing independent studies in their entirety to the journals Science and Nature (one confirmed presented in September 2011). Submitting these papers for publication sparked an international debate on whether the research should have been conducted at all let alone published.
At this time, those issues are still in debate. Arguments for continued research and full disclosure in publications include (amongst others) the belief that a better understanding of H5N1 will lead to a better understanding of how to combat it and that information should be freely and openly exchanged (otherwise it would be scientific censorship). Normally I would agree that all scientific knowledge belongs to the world and should not be closed/hoarded, but in this case I'm inclined to agree with Thomas Inglesby:
"Even in the rare event of an accidental infection of a laboratorian, the societal consequences of an escaped pathogen would normally be minimal or nil because most pathogens have little capacity for spread. However, the escape of a mutant, highly contagious H5N1 strain with a high case-fatality rate into a population with little or no immunity could result in a catastrophe."
On January 20th 2012 a letter signed by 39 scientists was published in both Nature and Science stating the intent of the signatories to continue dialogue in an international forum and to halt any experimentation related to H5N1 for 60 days voluntarily.
What I'm concerned about is that none of the recent statements (I only bothered to look at January 2012) being issued in regards to international H5N1 deaths state whether or not the H5N1 strains found are known or new/genetically modified. I think they are most likely known and not genetically modified, but it would be reassuring to know that given all the recent controversy. Then again....shouldn't there be a whole lot more reported contact with birds and dead birds in these reports?
"...Vietnam has recorded its first human bird flu death in nearly two years, and although the victim worked at a duck farm the H5N1 virus has yet to be found in poultry there..." 2012-01-19"
"...head of Health Department at the Province of Jakarta, said that the patient was suspected of being infected by the virus as he was sick following the death of one of his pigeon a week before.... 2012-01-09"
"...The mainland authorities say a man has died of H5N1 bird flu in Guizhou province, and they have notified the Centre for Health Protection in Hong Kong. The centre said the patient was a 39-year-old man who developed symptoms on January 6 and was admitted to hospital the same day. The man did not report having been in contact with poultry before the onset of symptoms....2012-01-22"