Bird flu strain infects human
A strain of bird flu that scientists thought could not infect humans has shown up in a Taiwanese woman, prompting calls for scientists to do more to spot dangerous flu strains before they ignite a global outbreak.
The 20-year-old was taken to hospital in May with a lung infection, but after being treated with Tamiflu and antibiotics, she was released.
One of her throat swabs was sent to the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control, and experts there have identified it as the H6N1 strain of bird flu, widely circulating in chickens on the island.
The patient, who was not identified, worked in a deli and had no known connection to live birds, and investigators could not figure out how she was infected. They noted several of her close family and friends also developed flu-like symptoms after spending time with her, though none tested positive for H6N1. The research was published online in the journal Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
Since the H5N1 bird flu strain first broke out in southern China in 1996, public health officials have been nervously monitoring its progress - it has so far killed more than 600 people, mostly in Asia. Several other bird flu strains, including H7N9, which was first identified in China in April, have also caused concern but none has so far mutated into a form able to spread easily among people.
"The question again is what would it take for these viruses to evolve into a pandemic strain?" wrote Marion Koopmans, a virologist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, in a commentary accompanying the new report.
She said it was worrying that scientists had no early warning signals that such new bird flus could be a problem until humans fell ill. Scientists often monitor birds to see which viruses are killing them in an attempt to guess which flu strains might be troublesome for humans - but neither H6N1 nor H7N9 make birds very sick.
Ms Koopmans called for increased surveillance of animal flu viruses and more research into predicting which viruses might cause a global crisis.
"We can surely do better than to have human beings as sentinels," she wrote.
On a more hopeful front, a company has reported encouraging results from its first human tests of a possible vaccine against a the H7N9 strain which is feared to have pandemic potential.
H7N9 has infected at least 137 people and killed at least 45 since last spring. Scientists from US firm Novavax say tests on 284 people suggest that after two shots of the vaccine, most made antibodies at a level that usually confers protection.
Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic said: "This is encouraging news. We've struggled to make vaccines quickly enough against novel viruses."
Results were published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.