Study shows H7N9 flu virus possesses pandemic potential

Study: Further research is needed for vaccine development, risk assessment

MADISON, Wis. - The emerging H7N9 avian influenza virus has qualities that could potentially spark a global outbreak of flu, according to a new study published Wednesday.

The H7N9 strain is responsible for at least 37 deaths in China.

An international team led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo revealed the H7N9 virus's ability to infect and replicate in several species of mammals, including ferrets and monkeys, according to a release.

The data suggest H7N9 viruses have the potential to become a worldwide threat to human health, according to the release.

"H7N9 viruses have several features typically associated with human influenza viruses and therefore possess pandemic potential and need to be monitored closely," Kawaoka said in the release.

The new study suggests that the ability of the H7N9 virus to infect and replicate in human cells may be due to just a few amino-acid changes in the genetic sequence of the virus, according to the release.

"These two features are necessary, although not sufficient, to cause a pandemic," said Kawaoka.

"If H7N9 viruses acquire the ability to transmit efficiently from person to person, a worldwide outbreak is almost certain, since humans lack protective immune responses to these types of viruses," said Kawaoka.

Most of the H7N9 strains tested were somewhat sensitive to antiviral drugs effective against the seasonal flu virus, although one isolate, which appears to be a mix of two variants of the virus, seemed to resist neuraminidase inhibitors like Tamiflu, according to the release.

Kawaoka said further research is needed to support vaccine development, to assess the risks and to better understand why the H7N9 viruses infect humans so efficiently.

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