Scientists have identified a key mechanism necessary for bird flu to morph from a rare but deadly infection into a pandemic that could kill millions of people.
MIT scientists reported in Sunday’s issue of Nature Biotechnology that the shape of certain cells in the virus could be key to allowing it to easily pass from human to human. In birds, the shape of cells in the virus match the shape of sugars in the animals’ respiratory tracts, allowing the infection to easily latch onto the animals. In humans, those shapes don’t match up — but if the virus morphed so they did, it could lead to a pandemic.
“We’re like a sitting duck, waiting for an H5N1 virus that can attach to us,” said Richard Cummings, an Emory University biochemist and influenza cell specialist who did not participate in the study. “This research moves us to the point where we can start anticipating what might happen.”
Since its 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, H5N1 avian influenza has spread rapidly around the world — first in poultry, then in wild birds. It’s killed millions of fowl in 66 countries, most since 2003. But it has yet to become a common human killer. What H5N1 lacks in human infectiousness, however, it makes up for in lethality: of 348 people in 14 countries infected by H5N1 since 2003, 216 died.
The virus is constantly evolving. Each infected bird population is a giant petri dish of potential mutations. If H5N1 learns to spread among people as well as it spreads in birds, the consequences could be catastrophic. A 1918 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people, and outbreaks in 1957 and 1968 killed another three million.
With H5N1, humans have so far benefited from the differences between cells in our noses and throats and those of birds — but that could change. With the MIT scientists’ discovery, doctors can monitor H5N1 strains for early evidence of human virulence. They may also make precisely targeted vaccines and drugs in advance of outbreaks.
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As some of you know, I’ve been following this for some time. I’m a poultry enthusiast, and my pastures are filled with ducks and chickens of various breeds and sizes. According to the research, children have more of the receptors that the H5N1 virus prefers in their upper airways than adults, and this may be why they are more susceptible to and less likely to recover from the infection. I continue to follow the increasing spread of the disease among birds and poultry and wonder how concerned I should be because the grandchildren’s first request is always to feed the chickens.