Deadly H5N1 bird flu needs just 5 mutations to spread easily in people

Friday, April 11, 2014
By Paul Martin

By Monte Morin
LATimes.com
April 10, 2014

It’s a flu virus so deadly that scientists once halted research on the disease because governments feared it might be used by terrorists to stage a biological attack.

Yet despite the fact that the H5N1 avian influenza has killed 60% of the 650 humans known to be infected since it was identified in Hong Kong 17 years ago, the “bird flu” virus has yet to evolve a means of spreading easily among people.

Now Dutch researchers have found that the virus needs only five favorable gene mutations to become transmissible through coughing or sneezing, like regular flu viruses.

World health officials have long feared that the H5N1 virus will someday evolve a knack for airborne transmission, setting off a devastating pandemic. While the new study suggests the mutations needed are relatively few, it remains unclear whether they’re likely to happen outside the laboratory.

“This certainly does not mean that H5N1 is now more likely to cause a pandemic,” said Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and coauthor of the study published Thursday in the journal Cell. “But it does mean that we should not exclude the possibility that it might happen.”

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