Bird flu is back with a vengeance.
Medical experts have found that a variant of the bird flu virus called H3N8 has gone through multiple mutations and can now cause more severe infections.
In addition, the H3N8 virus – which is endemic to poultry farms across China – is transmissible through airborne droplets between animals that do not have physical contact.
“The human population, even if vaccinated, could be vulnerable to infection at epidemic or pandemic levels.” Researchers wrote in the journal Cell.
The H3N8 variant has been found in horses, dogs and seals, as well as birds, but has not yet made the leap into the human population.
However, in March, the first known female death from H3N8 bird flu occurred in China. She likely got infected at a “wet market,” an open-air market where live animals are bought and sold.
Such markets are viewed by health professionals as fertile breeding grounds for the cultivation of potentially deadly viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents.
Last year, two boys also contracted the H3N8 virus and survived. The new virus has a special affinity for cells in the human respiratory system.
“[A]”The avian H3N8 virus, isolated from a patient with severe pneumonia, replicated efficiently in human bronchial and lung epithelial cells, was highly deleterious in its effects on laboratory mammalian hosts, and could be transmitted via respiratory droplets,” said Professor Kin-Chow Chang, Study co-author, University of Nottingham, said in a press release.
Avian flu viruses do not normally infect humans, but there have been rare cases of human infection with these viruses, the study said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In humans, avian influenza infections range from no symptoms or a mild course of the disease, to severe and potentially fatal. Human-to-human transmission is very rare and there have been no widespread human infections.
However, the CDC emphasizes that bird flu viruses could mutate and gain the ability to spread easily between humans. Therefore, surveillance of human infections and human-to-human transmission is extremely important for public health.
“The acid resistance of the influenza virus is … an important hurdle that the avian influenza virus must overcome in order to gain adaptability and transmissibility to new mammals or humans,” the study authors wrote, referring to the protection that acids provide in the immune system.
“The current novel H3N8 virus has not yet achieved acid resistance. Therefore, we should pay attention to the change in acid resistance of the novel H3N8 virus,” Chang added.