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A small genetic change makes flu virus deadly

A tiny change in one of the influenza viruss 10 genes is key to making certain strains of the virus especially virulent to humans, scientists report in the Sept. 7 issue of Science. This discovery helps explain why an influenza outbreak four years ago in Hong Kong killed an unusually high proportion of the people it infected - six out of 18, says lead researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We have found that a limited number of very tiny genetic changes in a specific gene, one called PB2, can have a big effect on how potent the influenza virus is, says Dr. Kawaoka, a grantee of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Because the influenza virus constantly mutates, and because only a few changes can make a non-pathogenic virus highly pathogenic, we should assume that an outbreak of any new strain or subtype is potentially dangerous to humans.

To prepare for future influenza pandemics, NIAID has supported efforts to understand how new virus strains potentially harmful to humans appear, says Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director. This study is an elegant example of research that provides insight into the emergence of virulent viruses and can help us develop better strategies for detecting future outbreaks.

Wild waterfowl are natural reservoirs for the influenza virus; these birds transmit the virus to pigs or chickens, which then pass it on to people. The deadly outbreak of influenza virus subtype H5N1 in Hong Kong in 1997 was the first documented case of an influenza virus jumping directly from chickens to people. Public health authorities responded by ordering the slaughter of more than 1 million live poultry to prevent further spread of the virus to humans.

Dr. Kawaoka and colleagues obtained samples of the H5N1 viruses that had infected Hong Kong residents during the 1997 outbreak. Testing these viruses in laboratory mice, the researchers found good correlat
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Contact: Jeff Minerd
jminerd@niaid.nih.gov
301-402-1663
NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
6-Sep-2001


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