Scientists Have Worked Out How The Deadly Bird Flu Virus Could Go Airborne

Medical workers in China take part in a drill which simulates human infection of the H7N9 bird flu virus. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

The H5N1 bird flu virus has infected and killed hundreds of people despite the fact it can’t spread easily between people.

The death toll could become much worse if the virus became airborne.

A study published in the journal Cell has revealed a minimal set of mutations which would allow H5N1 to be transmitted through the air.

The findings will be invaluable for future surveillance programs and may provide early warning signals of the emergence of potential pandemic strains.

“By gaining fundamental knowledge about how the influenza virus adapts to mammals and becomes airborne, we may ultimately be able to identify viruses that pose a public health risk among the large number of influenza viruses that are circulating in animals,” says senior study author Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands.

“If we can do this, we might be able to prevent some pandemics in the future.”

The H5N1 virus has caused serious outbreaks in domestic poultry in Asia and the Middle East and has infected people in 15 countries.

The virus must be transmissible through air for a pandemic to occur and Fouchier and his colleagues previously identified several H5N1 mutations linked to airborne transmission through aerosol or respiratory droplets.

But until now the minimal set of mutations required for airborne transmission was not clear, hindering the ability of scientists to predict and prepare for pandemics.

In the new study, the researchers identified five mutations sufficient for airborne transmission. Two mutations improved the binding of the virus to cells in the upper respiratory tract of mammals; two others enabled the virus to replicate more efficiently; and the remaining one increased the stability of the virus.

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