Only a few key mutations could cause the avian influenza virus to become airborne and transmissible among mammals, according to a controversial new paper publishing online today. In detailed research involving ferrets, researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands engineered a potent strain of the bird flu that could infect ferrets, and pass between them when the animals sneeze.
What’s more, this strain of engineered bird flu could mutate naturally, evolving the ability to attach to mammalian cells — potentially passing from human to human. Several natural strains of the avian influenza already have two of the mutations that are known to make the virus airborne, and they may only need two or three more to resemble the viruses engineered in two separate labs. Some scientists are hoping this research will give humans the upper hand in the fight against the flu.