Bird flu has potential to 'trigger pandemic like 1918'
Circulating bird flu viruses could be just a small step away from unleashing a pandemic as potentially ferocious as the one which killed 50 million people in 1918, research has shown.
The viral proteins making up the 1918 flu strain differ by only a few molecular building blocks from those now found in bird populations around the world, scientists found.
A handful of key mutations could be all it takes to allow a 1918-like virus to spread freely between humans, they believe.
Researchers tested the ability of a reverse-engineered 1918-like virus made from components circulating in birds to transmit to ferrets, whose susceptibility to flu mimics that of humans.
"The worst-case scenario is the emergence of a novel avian influenza virus that exhibits high pathogenicity in humans, like H5N1 (avian flu) viruses, and efficient transmissibility in humans, like seasonal influenza viruses," said US lead scientist Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Our findings demonstrate the value of continued surveillance of avian influenza viruses and reinforce the need for improved influenza vaccines and antivirals to prepare for such a scenario."
The research, published in the journal 'Cell Host and Microbe', showed that the genetic ingredients for such a pandemic already exist in nature and could combine to present a potentially deadly threat.
Another key finding of the study was that the current seasonal influenza vaccine may offer protection against a new 1918-like virus.
In addition, the 1918 virus was expected to be sensitive to the antiviral drug, oseltamivir.
Dr Kawaoka added: "Eventually, we hope to be able to reliably identify viruses with significant pandemic potential so we can focus preparedness efforts appropriately."