Is a new flu pandemic just three mutations away?

NHS Choices – June 16, 2017

“Just three mutations are needed to make bird flu a potential pandemic strain that could kill millions,” is the alarming headline from the Mail Online. However, the chance of all three mutations occurring has been described as “relatively low”.

Bird flu hit the headlines in 1997 when it was found that a strain of flu virus was spreading from poultry to humans in Hong Kong. The good news is that this strain didn’t spread quickly between humans and therefore didn’t spark a global pandemic in the same way as swine flu in 2009-10.

In a new study researchers analysed a strain of bird flu (H7N9) to see whether a particular surface protein on the virus could bind to human tissue. If it could, this would make human-to-human transmission of the H7N9 flu virus more likely.

The researchers found that three mutations of amino acids helped the virus bind specifically to human tissue and, in theory, could allow a human-to-human type transmission.