Researchers have identified five possible ways in which the H5N1 bird flu virus could mutate and lead to a deadly pandemic.
Bird flu has caused the deaths of millions of birds and is deadly to humans. At present it can only be spread to humans by close contact with infected birds and as such only 332 people have died from the illness since 2003.
However, there is a fear that the H5N1 virus could one day mutate and become transmissible through the air. The latest study is the first to confirm that this type of mutation is theoretically possible.
By comparing the genetic structure of the H5N1 virus to those responsible for other human pandemics, the scientists were able to identify five differences which could cause the virus to mutate into an airborne form. By genetically engineering those changes and testing the results on ferrets, the scientists were able to prove the theory.
The researchers also looked into whether the mutations could occur naturally. The found that some bird viruses already had two of the mutations, and mathematical modelling indicated that it was possible for them to mutate again.
The researchers hope that the research would help to prepare for any potential pandemic and speed up the development of vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
Lead researcher, Prof Ron Fouchier said: “We hope to learn which viruses can cause pandemics and by knowing that we might be able to prevent them by enforcing strict eradication programmes”