If the world's infectious disease researchers get a handle on the latest version of the swine flu currently coursing across continents, humanity will likely owe a debt of gratitude to that cute and elongated mammal, the ferret.
As Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the World Health Organization's Initiative for Vaccine Research explained at a briefing today:
"Prior to going into humans there will be experiments done in animal models. And for influenza there is one good model which is the ferret. So this little animal can be infected with the flu virus and there will be experiments to try to demonstrate at the very early stages of development... which formulation of vaccine seems to protect the ferret against this infection and potentially crossing over with other viruses"
Why ferrets? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an answer on a website it produced to explain how it was combating avian flu caused by the H5N1 virus:
CDC's Influenza Division is working to better understand bird flu viruses and their ability to infect and cause illness in mammals, including humans. Animal models have been developed in mice and ferrets to study how bird flu viruses infect and cause illness and to model how flu viruses may spread. In particular, the ferret model has been used to evaluate how H5N1 viruses might infect and cause illness in humans and other animals. Ferrets are useful in flu studies because their respiratory tract cells are similar to those of humans and are susceptible to similar types of viruses.