A “new” strain of deadly bird flu dubbed “Disease X” by the World Health Organization (WHO) has killed hundreds of people in China, and is just three mutations away from becoming transmissible between humans, according to experts.
The strain, H7N9, circulates in poultry and has killed 623 people out of 1,625 infected in China – a mortality rate of 38.3%. While first identified in China in 2013, H7N9 has recently emerged as a serious threat seemingly overnight.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for the UK, told The Telegraph that H7N9 could cause a global outbreak.
“[H7N9] is an example of another virus which has proven its ability to transmit from birds to humans,” said Van-Tam, who added “It’s possible that it could be the cause of the next pandemic.”
The WHO says N7N9 is “an unusually dangerous virus for humans,” and “one of the most lethal influenza viruses that we’ve seen so far”
“H7N9 viruses have several features typically associated with human influenza viruses and therefore possess pandemic potential and need to be monitored closely,” said Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Researchers led by James Paulson of the Scripps Research Institute in California have been studying the mutations which could potentially occur in H7N9’s genome to allow for human-to-human infection.
The team’s findings, published in the journal PLoS Pathogens on Thursday, showed that in laboratory tests, mutations in three amino acids made the virus more able to bind to human cells — suggesting these changes are key to making the virus more dangerous to people. –Japan Times
That said, the mutations would need to occur relatively close to each other to become more virulent, which has a low probability of happening according to Fiona Culley, an expert in respiratory immunology at Imperial College London.
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