China bird flu mutated "under the radar"

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The new strain of bird flu that has killed 17 people in China has been circulating widely "under the radar" and in that time acquired a diversity of genetic bits and pieces that make the virus more of a threat, scientists said.

Dutch and Chinese researchers who analysed genetic data from seven samples of the new H7N9 strain say it has already acquired similar levels of genetic diversity as other H7 strains of avian flu that caused much larger outbreaks among poultry and infected some people in the past.

"The diversity we see in these first few samples from China is as great as the diversity we have seen with a large outbreak in the Netherlands several years ago and one in Italy," said Marion Koopmans, head of virology at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, who worked on the study as part of a nine-member team."

How the H7N9 virus spreads

This means it (the H7N9 strain in China) has been spreading (in bird populations) quite a bit and it's important to understand where exactly that is going on."Genetic diversity demonstrates the ability of the virus to mutate repeatedly and that it is likely to continue doing so, raising the risk that it may evolve an ability to transmit easily between humans.

Koopmans, whose research was published in the online journal Eurosurveillance, said the wide circulation that allowed the current virus to pick up such genetic diversity would probably have taken place in either birds or mammals, but exactly which animals were involved was not yet clear.

"Simply the fact that this (H7N9) virus is spreading under the radar - because that is what this data confirms - is of concern," she told Reuters in a telephone interview. The newest strain of H1N1 flu, which appeared in 2009 and caused a human pandemic, also showed genetic signs of far-ranging circulation among pigs and possibly birds, before evolving the ability to infect humans and pass from person to person.

17 people died from the virus

The H7N9 virus is so far known to have infected 87 people in China, killing 17 of them. Health officials raised further questions on Friday about the source of the new strain after data indicated that more than half of patients had had no contact with poultry.

MUTATIONSA scientific study published last week showed the H7N9 strain was a so-called "triple reassortant" virus with a mixture of genes from three other flu strains found in birds in Asia. One of those three strains is thought to have come from a brambling, a type of small wild bird.

For their study, Koopmans and her team compared some data from the first two weeks of the China H7N9 outbreak with data from a large H7N7 flu outbreak in birds and people the Netherlands in 2003, as well as an H7N1 epidemic in birds in Italy in 1999 and 2000.The Dutch outbreak infected poultry on 255 farms and led to the culling of about 30 million chickens.

How the virus enters the body

Some 89 people were also diagnosed as having the H7N7 virus, with generally mild illness, though one person, a veterinarian, died as a result of the infection. The comparison suggested that "widespread circulation (of the H7N9 strain among birds in China) must have occurred, resulting in major genetic diversification," the researchers wrote in their study.

They added: "Such diversification is of concern, given that several markers associated with increased risk for public health are already present."Flu experts in China and at the World Health Organization say there is no evidence so far that H7N9 is passing easily between people.

But scientists who analysed the genetic sequence data from three early samples from China say the virus has already acquired some mutations that might make it more likely to be able to do so in the future."Although human infections with H7 influenza viruses have occurred repeatedly over the last decades without evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission, the absence of sustained human-to-human transmission of H7N9 viruses does not come with any guarantee," Koopmans' team wrote in their study.

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