GE Developing Robotic System for Hospitals

Presently, when an operation is going to be performed at a hospital, people first locate all the instruments that the surgeon will require, inspect them, arrange them on a tray, sterilize them, and then deliver them to the operating room. According to General Electric’s GE Global Research division, however, robots could do all of those things better. To that end, the group has recently partnered with GE Healthcare and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, in a US$2.5 million two-year project to develop just such robots.

Drawing upon data from the Institute of Medicine, GE states that “between 44,000 and 98,000 patients die every year due to preventable medical errors accounting for a $12-$25 billion cost to the U.S healthcare system.” The company hopes that by removing the human error factor from the process, the use of an automated robotic system will bring those numbers down.

Not only should this reportedly save lives and money, but it should also allow more patients to be processed within a given time, and free up staff to perform other duties – which admittedly could include being unemployed.

The backbone of the system will include a “mash-up” of technologies such as robotics, RFID (radio frequency identification), and computer vision. Every aspect of the system will be based around that common backbone, allowing human users in different hospitals to customize and configure it according to their needs – as opposed to having to develop a complete system from scratch.

The system would include mobile robots, for delivering and retrieving instruments

The system would include mobile robots, for delivering and retrieving instruments

All surgical instruments will be given a unique ID, so that they can be identified by the various specialized robots. One of the biggest challenges may lie in teaching the robots to handle and test those instruments, although GE does have an existing base to build upon.

“The technologies we’re investigating have been used to automate manufacturing processes in industrial settings for years, and we believe they, in combination with a new level of intelligence, can have a substantial impact in hospitals,” said Lynn DeRose, Principal Investigator and Auto-ID technology expert with GE Global Research. She provides more information in the video below.

Once completed, a prototype of the system will be tested at a veteran’s hospital. In an unrelated project, the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center recently replaced the human workers in its pharmacy with a robotic system.

GE researches use of robots for hospital sterile processing Youtube Video

Source: Gizmag


Huawei CFO Linked to Firm That Offered HP Gear to Iran

LONDON (Reuters) – A Hong Kong-based firm that attempted to sell embargoed Hewlett-Packard computer equipment to Iran’s largest mobile-phone operator has much closer ties to China’s Huawei Technologies than was previously known, corporate records show.

Cathy Meng, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei, served on the board of Hong Kong-based Skycom Tech Co Ltd between February 2008 and April 2009, according to Skycom records filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry.

Reuters reported last month that in late 2010, Skycom’s office in Tehran offered to sell at least 1.3 million euros worth of HP gear to Mobile Telecommunication Co of Iran, despite U.S. trade sanctions. At least 13 pages of the proposal were marked “Huawei confidential” and carried Huawei’s logo. Huawei said neither it nor Skycom ultimately provided the HP equipment; HP said it prohibits the sale of its products to Iran.

Huawei has described Skycom as one of its “major local partners.”

But a review by Reuters of corporate records and other documents found numerous financial and other links over the past decade between Huawei, Meng and Skycom, suggesting a closer relationship between the two firms. In 2007, for instance, a management company controlled by Huawei’s parent company held all of Skycom’s shares. At the time, Meng served as the management firm’s company secretary.

Meng, who also goes by the name Meng Wanzhou, appears to be a rising star at Shenzhen-based Huawei, now the world’s second-largest maker of telecommunications equipment. During a presentation of Huawei’s financial results last week in Beijing, she met foreign journalists in an on-the-record session that was reported to be a first for anyone in her family.

“We will honor our commitment to transparency and openness,” she told the journalists.

Meng did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Huawei declined to make her available for an interview, or answer any specific questions about the company’s or her links to Skycom.

In an emailed statement, Huawei said, “The relationship between Huawei and Skycom is a normal business partnership. Huawei has established a trade compliance system which is in line with industry best practices and our business in Iran is in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations including those of the UN. We also require our partners, such as Skycom, to make the same commitments.”

A Hong Kong accountancy and secretarial firm that Skycom has listed in financial filings as its corporate secretary, did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. House Intelligence Committee recently criticized Huawei for not answering questions about its Iranian operations and for failing to “provide evidence to support its claims that it complies with all international sanctions or U.S. export laws.” The sanctions on Iran are designed to deter it from developing nuclear weapons; Iran says its nuclear program is aimed purely at producing domestic energy.

Huawei, which has contracts with many Iranian telecoms, says it is reducing its business in Iran.


Corporate filings offer few clues about the operations of Skycom, which like Huawei is a private company.

Telecommunications managers who have worked in Iran say that many employees at Skycom’s offices are Chinese nationals who wear Huawei badges or carry Huawei business cards. On, several telecom workers list having worked at “Huawei-skycom” on their resumes.

Skycom’s corporate filings show that since it was first incorporated in Hong Kong in 1998, the firm has had a succession of different controlling shareholders, including individuals and offshore companies.

In its annual return filed in May 2007, Skycom reported that all of its shares had been transferred three months earlier from two companies in the British Virgin Islands to a Hong Kong firm called Hua Ying Management Co Ltd. Hua Ying’s shares were held by Shenzhen Huawei Investment & Holding Co Ltd, Huawei’s parent company, according to Hua Ying’s filings.

Meng was then Hua Ying’s company secretary, corporate records show.

In November of that year, all of Skycom’s shares were transferred to a company called Canicula Holdings Ltd, which is registered in Mauritius. Huawei declined to answer any questions about the transfer or whether it is related to Canicula.

According to Mauritius company records, Canicula’s registered address is a local company called Multiconsult Ltd. An employee there declined to answer any questions.

Besides Meng, several other past and present Skycom directors appear to have connections to Huawei. In its most recent annual return, Skycom lists a director named Hu Mei, who also appears to have a Huawei email address and was listed in an internal Huawei employee directory, according to a person familiar with the matter. A former Skycom director, Wu Shuyuan, also has a Huawei email address and was listed in an internal Huawei directory, this person said.

Reached for comment, both confirmed they had served or serve as directors of Skycom but declined to answer any questions about Huawei. Huawei declined to answer any questions about them.

In early 2010 – the same year Skycom offered to export the HP equipment to Iran – a London firm called International Company Profile that prepares credit reports, released a “company status report” on Skycom in Tehran. The report said ICP had interviewed Skycom’s financial manager there.

Skycom “is a subsidiary of Huawei Technologies Corporation,” the report stated.

The report also listed Skycom’s chief executive as Zhang Hongkai. In 2009, the website of China’s embassy in Iran published a press release announcing that Huawei had signed a cooperation agreement with an Iranian university. The article reported that the agreement was co-signed by “Mr. Zhang Hongkai, CEO from Huawei Iran Office.”

Zhang could not be reached for comment. Huawei declined to answer questions about the credit report.

Source: Reuters

The Botnet That Stole 16,000 Facebook Logins

Malware managed to pilfer over 16,000 Facebook credentials in 2012, as well as credit card information linked to user accounts, it was revealed today.

The PokerAgent botnet was in control of 800 systems, as it sought to harvest information on Facebook users running the Zynga Poker app. The botnet was most active in Israel, security company ESET said, revealing the findings today, having worked with police in the country and with Facebook to kill the threat.

Infected users did not have their own Facebook accounts hacked. Their systems were instead used to carry out nefarious activities on other user accounts for which the attackers had acquired details, as the hackers sought to cover their tracks. Those systems carrying the malware were also used to propagate and grow the botnet.

“Facebook was notified and has responded promptly by forcing password resets for all known victims,” Robert Lipovský, ESET malware researcher, told TechWeekEurope.

“We only know that the attacker had at least 16,194 unique entries in his database of stolen logins. On the one hand, there may have been more, on the other, not all of these were valid – so that number is just a rough estimate.”

ESET had no information on how much money was stolen.

The Trojan was programmed to log into Facebook accounts and collect information on Zynga Poker stats for the given Facebook ID and the number of payment methods saved in the Facebook account.

PokerAgent was only interested in gathering gender information, points and rank from poker players. It is unclear what the attackers were doing with the harvested data, but ESET suggested they were amassing databases for future attempts to steal user identities and funds.

“The code suggests that the attacker seeks out Facebook users who have something of value, worth stealing – determined by the Poker stats and credit card details saved in their Facebook account,” Lipovský wrote in a blog post. “Later, the attacker can simply abuse the credit card information themselves or they may sell the database to other criminals.”

The malware was also ordered to publish links on the infected Facebook user’s wall. Those links would lead visitors to a fake Facebook login site, where their details would also be phished.

But Facebook users should not have to worry about this threat today. ESET said the malware author seemed to have ceased actively spreading the Trojan mid-February 2012. Efforts from ESET, Israel’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and law enforcement could well have been the catalyst for the demise of PokerAgent.

ESET noted that two-factor authentication would have prevented the malware from logging into Facebook accounts.

Source: TechWeekEurope

Department of Energy Mismanaged ‘Smart Grid’ Money According to Report

The Department of Energy mismanaged millions of dollars last year when quickly doling out recovery funds for new “smart grid” projects, according to a new inspector general’s report.

The agency failed to secure proper documentation for reimbursements and allowed some recipients to falter on their cost-share responsibilities when approving 11 projects worth about $12 million, DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman said in a report released this week.

“We found the department had not always managed the program effectively and efficiently,” Friedman wrote.

DOE has been tasked with disbursing large sums of money for new grid projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with the aim of injecting money into the faltering economy.

The agency has distributed about $700 million to support 42 projects demonstrating new energy storage systems and advanced metering, 10 of which were only partially funded, according to the report.

After reviewing 11 smart grid projects, Friedman said, he uncovered about $12.3 million in “questionable spending.”

Specifically, DOE officials failed to provide documentation to show reimbursements were necessary or cost-effective, he said. In one case, the agency reimbursed two recipients based on estimates and not actual costs, resulting in overpayments of almost $10 million, he said. A third recipient received almost $2.4 million without showing the proper documentation, according to the report.

The agency also allowed one recipient to use $28 million worth of proceeds from a federally backed project to meet its cost-share requirement, Friedman said. Recipients cannot under federal law use federal funds or previous contributions to meet cost-share requirements, he said.

In another case, DOE awarded a recipient $14 million for a project that had already received $2 million under the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program for similar work.

“In fact, the recipient, unknown to the department until our audit, had reported the same accomplishments under both awards,” Friedman said.

DOE has already recovered most of the money in question, and the agency agreed with many of Friedman’s findings in the report. But the department also rejected some of his concerns, including the assertion that the department approved $1.7 million for an energy storage project that hadn’t been built yet.

Instead, DOE said it “maintained frequent contact with the recipient and had been continually aware of the project’s progress.”

Report PDF

Source: Governor’s Wind Energy Coalition

How Wireless Charging Can Drive Near-Field Communications Growth

At CES 2013, the Wireless Power Consortium displayed dozens of devices that were designed to the Qi wireless charging standard, suggesting that 2013 may be the year wireless charging becomes a feature consumers expect to come standard in new smartphones.

Nokia and HTC already offer smartphones with Qi technology integrated directly, such as the Lumia 920 and Droid DNA. For more popular smartphones that were not developed with Qi compatibility, including Apple’s iPhone 5 and Samsung’s Galaxy S3, third-party manufacturers have developed smartphone cases with integrated Qi technology. The cases themselves plug into the phone’s power dock and relay a charge received when the encased phone is placed on a wireless power source.

Further facilitating the rise of wireless charging is the Qi standard’s compatibility. Although manufacturers can build wirelessly charging devices on their own, the standard dictates that all Qi-enabled devices are compatible with all Qi-enabled power sources. That means a wireless charging pad developed by Nokia could charge a smartphone built by HTC, and so on. Best of all, it means smartphone users will never again need to scramble for a power cord that fits into the custom-designed power dock on their phones.

But what does the impending rise of wirelessly charging smartphones have to do with the growth of near-field communications (NFC) technology?

At CES, the WPC booth also displayed several new components designed to facilitate the integration of the Qi wireless charging technology. One component on display, developed by TDK, integrated both Qi wireless technology and NFC into a single chip.

As these components become smaller, cheaper, and easier to integrate into devices, Bas Fransen, chief marketing officer at ConvenientPower, says manufacturers will ship more smartphones featuring both wireless charging and NFC.

“The beauty of Qi is that the receiver actually is very simple and low in cost; that has been the objective as mobile phone OEMs demand ultra-low-cost adders,” Fransen says. “So, indeed, once those chips are ready, it will be simple for mobile phone OEMs to integrate Qi and NFC.”

Some smartphones already feature both NFC and Qi. At CES, Fransen placed an NFC/Qi-enabled smartphone on top of a similarly outfitted JBL boombox, which charged the device while streaming audio through its speakers wirelessly.

However, the Qi and NFC technologies were integrated separately in the manufacturing process of some of these devices, which is why phones that boast both capabilities have been so rare to this point. But as manufacturers look to set their devices apart from those of their competitors, Fransen says the integration of NFC and wireless charging will become a common trend by the second half of 2013.

The integration is relatively simple, Fransen says. The NFC and Qi systems will simply operate “next to each other on one single ‘die.'” The result will be a less expensive method by which manufacturers can tout new capabilities on their products.

“The easier and cheaper we all make it for mobile phone OEMs, the faster technologies get adopted,” Fransen says.

Of course, some obstacles still stand in the way. Near-field communications has long been touted as the future of mobile payments, but while Google Wallet uses the technology for its smartphone payment technology, Apple famously passed on the technology for its mobile payment app on the iPhone 5. At the time, Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller told All Things D that NFC does not necessarily solve any current problems smartphone users face. Considering that the technology had already been criticized by eBay CEO John Donahoe, who has joked that NFC should stand for “Not For Commerce,” the snub likely did not improve public opinion on the technology.

Steve Goacher, business development manager for wireless power at Texas Instruments, says “there is no reason why these two solutions cannot be combined.” However, he points out that integrating NFC and Qi technologies could result in efficiency and cost of the final solution, if it’s not perfected before the component is shipped.

Consumers will also need to find places to use NFC. In order for an NFC-enabled device to complete a transaction, it needs to be scanned by an NFC reader. That means merchants will need to jump onboard as well.

This process will take some time, but the shift is indeed expected to happen. Gartner predicts a 42% annual growth rate for mobile payment transactions will result in a $617 billion market of 448 million users by 2016.

“NFC payment involves a change in user behavior and requires collaboration among stakeholders that includes banks, mobile carriers, card networks and merchants,” Sandy Shen, research director at Gartner, said in a May 2012 report. “It takes time for both to happen, so we don’t expect NFC payments to come into the mass market before 2015. In the meantime, ticketing, rather than retail payment, will drive NFC transactions.”

Source: Network World

Healthspot Replaces Doctor’s Office with a Telepresence Kiosk

Telepresence physicians have been predicted since Hugo Gernsback foresaw the “radio doctor” in the 1920s. HealthSpot of Dublin, Ohio takes this idea a step further with its HealthSpot Station. It’s a telepresence kiosk that acts as an alternative to the traditional doctor’s office.

In the United States, there is increasing pressure on the health system, yet the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by 2025 there will be a physician shortage of 130,000. Billed as a telehealth system, the HealthSpot Station is a telepresence kiosk designed to take pressure off a beleaguered health care system by providing a private area where acute care patients can speak to a physician over a high-definition video conference system.

It’s purpose is to act as an alternative to urgent care centers and emergency rooms while giving physicians a way to use their time more efficiently. There is an attendant on duty to answer questions and provide assistance and inside the kiosk is a suite of digital instruments to aid diagnosis, such as a pulse oximeter, blood pressure cuff, dermascope, patient touchscreen, video conference screen, otoscope and stethoscope. In addition, there are antibacterial surfaces and UV-C lighting.

HealthSpot sees the kiosk being used in a wide variety of locations including grocery stores, hospitals, doctors and specialists offices, emergency rooms, large businesses, rural communities, military bases, schools, nursing homes and remote villages in developing countries.

The video below introduces the HealthSpot Station.

Youtube Video

Via: Gizmag

5 Most Tech Cars Coming in 2013

Each one of these high-end cars has an unusual and unique tech feature that sets it apart from most of the others on the market, as you’re about to find out…

1. 2013 Volvo S60

Winner of top safety awards, the Volvo S60 is full of cutting edge technology. As you drive, the car displays road signs in the dash to help you identify yields and speed limits. A new queue assist tech for the adaptive cruise control system means that, when the car automatically adjusts for the speed of the car in front of you (now up to 31mph/50kmph on city streets) and brings you to a full stop, the car won’t resume with a sudden jolt automatically if you’re paused for more than three seconds. The S60 is one of the few cars on the road that can detect pedestrians crossing your path and stop the car, too.

2. 2013 Lexus 600hL

The flagship saloon/sedan from Lexus, this high-end car uses a unique temperature control system that coordinates the air-flow controls, seat warmers and cabin temperature. There are infrared sensors that monitor the temperature for all passengers and make subtle adjustments as needed. The LED lighting system glows bright as you approach the car, then dims as you enter the vehicle and start the engine. A driver attention monitoring system knows if you are getting drowsy.

3. 2013 Mercedes-Benz GL-450

This much-improved vehicle for 2013 now has an active parking assist feature that takes control of steering when you parallel park. But that’s just the beginning of the new automated steering controls. When you drive around a tight corner, the Mercedes GL-450 will make subtle corrections to the ride to ease you around the corner. If a gust of wind blows onto the road on a mountain pass, a crosswind stabilisation system will also correct steering for you and keep the car straight.

4. 2013 BMW ActiveHybrid 3

You might think the highest-end BMW would be the company’s flagship luxury saloon/sedan. But this smaller, more affordable hybrid is the one that’s outfitted with the latest tech enhancements. The car can parallel park automatically, dip the headlights from high-beams for approaching cars, and beep at you if you get too close to another car when parking. Those are fairly standard features on a luxury car. But the ActiveHybrid 3 also supports BMW apps such as a new parking spot finder, offers Google Search in the sat nav system, and has a head-up display (HUD) that shows the current posted speed.

5. 2013 Infiniti JX

Another surprise on this list, considering most of the high-tech cars on the road are luxury saloons/sedans, the JX rounds out our list because it has a wholly unique feature. While some cars have a back-up assist that can warn you about an imminent collision, the JX will intervene and stop the car for you. The luxury 4×4/SUV also has typical Infiniti high-tech features, such as a lane departure intervention system that bumps you back into your lane, and an adaptive control system that works even from long-range.

Source: TechRadar

Belkin to Acquire Cisco’s Home Division

Belkin has just struck a deal to acquire Cisco’s Home Networking Business Unit, which will bring Linksys’ name, products, technology and employees under its new owner’s umbrella. Mothballing isn’t in the cards for Linksys, however, as Belkin plans to keep the brand alive and even offer support for its existing products. The two networking titans haven’t said a peep regarding a sticker price, but they expect the pact to be finalized in March. Once the transaction is rubber stamped, Belkin figures it’ll compose roughly 30 percent of the home and small business networking retail market in the US. Hit the jump for the press release.

Press Release


    Acquisition to Bolster Belkin’s Position in the Home Networking Market, Building on the Strong Linksys Brand and Innovative Suite of Product and Software Solutions

    Playa Vista, Calif. – January 24, 2013 – Belkin, a private company based in Playa Vista, Calif., with operations and sales in more than 100 countries, today announced that it has entered into an agreement to acquire Cisco’s Home Networking Business Unit, including its proven products, technology, well-known Linksys brand and talented employees. With global operations, Linksys’ main office is located in Irvine, Calif.

    “We’re very excited about this announcement,” said Chet Pipkin, CEO of Belkin. “Our two organizations share many core beliefs – we have similar beginnings and share a passion for meeting the real needs of our customers through the strengths of an entrepreneurial culture. Belkin’s ultimate goal is to be the global leader in the connected home and wireless networking space and this acquisition is an important step to realizing that vision.”

    Belkin intends to maintain the Linksys brand and will offer support for Linksys products as part of this transaction. All valid warranties will be honored by Belkin for current and future Linksys products. After the transaction closes, Belkin will account for approximately 30 percent of the U.S. retail home and small business networking market.

    “Linksys pioneered wireless connectivity capability around the globe, and has a strong brand renowned for its premium market position, the strength of its installed base and its proven dependability. Linksys users benefit from peace of mind in their home networking environment. At Belkin we have developed great insight into consumer needs, and the experiences, solutions and products we bring to the market, including our WeMo home automation platform, will help us to grow Linksys’ market presence,” Pipkin said.

    “Linksys is one of the leading home networking providers and has created a market-leading suite of products and services to meet customer needs,” said Hilton Romanski, VP Corporate Business Development, Cisco. “While part of Cisco, Linksys has continuously innovated, while strengthening the brand and expanding its market leadership. As part of Cisco’s commitment to service providers, we are pleased about this strategic relationship with Belkin to build on Linksys’ position of strength.”

    “With complementary innovation and engineering strategies in the combined organization, Belkin will be able to create new opportunities for consumers, distribution partners and resellers, and will have the strongest retail presence in the U.S. networking marketplace. Belkin also will have access to a large installed base that will be able to upgrade their networking environment to take advantage of new technologies in the smartphone, tablet, notebook and home automation arenas,” Pipkin said. “Additionally, Linksys will enhance Belkin’s capabilities to meet the needs of the service provider space and small business users.”

    Belkin and Cisco intend to develop a strategic relationship on a variety of initiatives including retail distribution, strategic marketing and products for the service provider market. Having access to Cisco’s specialized software solutions across all of Belkin’s product lines will bring a more seamless user experience for customers. Merging the innovation capabilities of Linksys and Belkin provides a powerful platform from which to develop the next generation of home networking technology.

    “At Belkin, we’re committed to enabling great experiences for users of today’s mobile and connected home technologies,” Pipkin said. “The acquisition of Linksys and the combination of Belkin’s and Linksys’ expertise and innovation will position us to meet the demands of today’s rapidly evolving advances in technology. We look forward to honoring the heritage of the Linksys brand and investing in the continuing evolution of its product portfolio. Together, we will provide a powerful, simple to use, and reliable wireless and networking platform for the markets we serve.”

    Specific financial terms of the transaction are undisclosed. The transaction is subject to various standard closing conditions and is expected to close in March 2013.

Source: Engadget

FDA Approves Robot Doctor

The FCC approves consumer electronics devices for the masses, but what about the FDA? Well, they make sure that all things medical are fit for public service, and the latest candidate to gain approval from this regulatory board is the first robot doctor developed by iRobot. Wait a minute here, doesn’t iRobot churn out Roombas? Yup, that is correct, and the robot doctor in question here is the RP-VITA that comes in the form of a telepresence robot. It will rely on a large display with an iPad interface to enable a doctor to examine a patient remotely, and it works swell in pre-op and post-op situations, not to mention during surgery as well.

This FDA clearance is significant, since it proves that a robot is able to move about safely and independently through a fast-paced, chaotic and demanding hospital , and would also mark a rather significant technological milestone for the robotics and healthcare industries.

The RP-VITA is currently on sale by InTouch Health, where it will fall under the guise of the company’s latest flagship remote presence device. iRobot has plans to explore adjacent market opportunities for similar robots, and we do wonder what other kinds of medical robots are on their way.

Press Release

Source: Ubergizmo

Scientists Will Restart Avian Flu (H5N1) Research Following Moratorium

Understanding how the virus passes between mammals is a critical public health issue.

Scientists studying avian influenza, a potentially deadly disease that can sometimes infects animals, and humans, announced that their work will resume following the moratorium that began last year amid safety concerns.

Because of widespread controversy over the risk of a more transmissible virus escaping or being used for bioterrorism, influenza researchers around the world agreed in January 2012 to stop any work that could generate more transmissible versions of the avian flu, also known as H5N1. What was originally supposed to be a 60-day pause turned into a yearlong moratorium.

Today, the same 40 researchers who signed on to the moratorium announced at a press conference and in letters published in both Science and Nature  that the work would resume in countries where governments have agreed to oversight and lab safety measures. In a teleconference, the researchers said that work at specialized labs in the European Union, Canada, and China will restart, but that scientists in the U.S. and Japan still await final guidelines and decisions from their governments.

The researchers say it is important to resume the work to prepare for a potential bird flu pandemic, and that the pause has given governments time to review their biosafety and biosecurity policies and researchers time to explain the public health benefits of the work.

“We believe this research is important to pandemic preparedness,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, an influenza researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo. “Understanding how the avian virus is adapted to mammals will lead to better surveillance and vaccines,” he said.

H5N1 is deadly to birds and rarely infects humans, but it has killed some 360 people since 2003, according to the CDC. To better understand how the virus could potentially be spread between humans through sneezes or coughs, researchers study molecular changes that can lead to easier transmission. This has been done in the lab with ferrets and in some cases the work has led to the creation of more dangerous strains of the virus.

Generally, the virus does not pass efficiently between people or ferrets, but Kawaoka and other researchers have found that the wild viruses could easily mutate into a strain that could transmit between mammals by sneezes or coughs. A study conducted by Ron Fouchier, a flu researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, prior to the moratorium found that only five mutations in the H5N1 virus would create this more dangerous strain. At least two of the mutations have already been found in natural viruses, said Fouchier.

“The research is clearly of importance to public health,” said Fouchier. “With the knowledge of these mutations, we can do better surveillance.” If they start popping up in nature, “then countries should eradicate those outbreaks with a strict sense of urgency,” Fouchier added.

The work will also help scientists better evaluate antiviral drugs and vaccines, Fouchier said. Currently, such treatments are tested on either seasonal flu virus or ordinary H5N1, but these viruses behave differently in ferrets than the more transmissible strain.

Such testing is conducted in facilities with specialized air filtration and air-flow systems that require scientists to work in sealed “space suits.”

“We can conduct these experiments safely,” said Kawaoka. “There can never be zero risk, but the risk can be minimized and managed.”

Source: MIT Technology Review