A new strain of bird flu found in a group of seals which died off the east coast of America last year could pose a threat to humans, experts have warned.The virus, which is very similar to a form of bird flu identified among North American birds since 2002, has developed mutations which allowed it to pass to mammals.
Independent experts said it was too early to guess whether the virus could be infectious to humans, and how severe its effects might be, but added that it warranted close monitoring to identify and quickly combat any potential risk.
Humans have in some circumstances contracted and died from existing forms of bird flu, but only through close contact with infected birds, meaning such cases are extremely rare.
But the new virus has evolved in a way which is known to make it more easily transmissible, in particular developing a mutation which may allow it to target a protein found in human lungs.
Writing in the mBio online journal, the research team said: “This outbreak is particularly significant, not only because of the disease it caused in seals but also because the virus has naturally acquired mutations that are known to increase transmissibility and virulence in mammals.”
Seals can be infected with several types of flu, raising the possibility of the virus evolving still further, they added, meaning it “must be considered a significant threat to both wildlife and public health”.
Prof Mark Fielder of Kingston University, who was not involved in the study, said further research was needed to understand the nature of the mutations and the risks they could potentially pose.
He said: “It is clear from this study that these initial findings are of great interest but the real impact of the data will be revealed once further studies on the importance of the mutations have been carried out.”
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