A study published Thursday shows how a bird flu virus that’s sickening and killing people in China could mutate to potentially become more contagious.
Just three changes could be enough to do the trick, scientists report in the journal PLOS Pathogens.
And the news comes just as federal officials are getting ready to lift a moratorium on controversial lab experiments that would deliberately create flu viruses with mutations like these.
Public health officials have been worried about this bird flu virus, called H7N9, because it’s known to have infected more than 1,500 people — and killed 40 percent of them. So far, unlike other strains that more commonly infect humans, this deadly virus does not spread easily between people.
The fear is that if it mutates in a way that lets it spread more easily, the virus will sweep around the globe and take a heavy toll, because people’s immune systems haven’t ever been exposed to this type of flu before. Past pandemics caused by novel flu viruses jumping from animals or birds into people have killed millions.