Scientists have just discovered that the bird flu virus is only three mutations away from becoming a strain of flu which can be passed from person to person. So a bird flu pandemic could become a very real threat. At the moment the Avian H5N1 influenza virus can only be passed from birds to humans so it can’t spread through the air between groups of people.
However, a recent report from Cambridge University says that there already strains of the virus in existence that are just those three stages away from being able to be transmitted from human to human. The report also says that this airborne strain could even evolve in one person or naturally in the wild.
One of the Cambridge scientists involved in the research, Professor Derek Smith, compared the risk to an earthquake fault line saying that the risk exists but it is difficult to tell when or if it will become a reality. He said that with the information they have, it is impossible to say what the exact risk is.
He added that the research helped greatly because they knew what was coming. American authorities feared that the release of this information could pose a security threat so it was held back for several months. However, concerns that it could be used by terrorists as a bio-weapon have been abated.
The original paper by Ron Fouchier of the Rotterdam-based Erasmus Medical Centre stated that ferrets that caught the virus by breathing it in did not die thus easing the Americans concerns.
Professor Wendy Barclay, the Chair in Influenza Virology at Imperial College, London, said that more study from the biologists will help mathematicians to assess the risks and enable them estimate the risk of a pandemic.