You probably haven’t thought about the bird flu in a couple of years, unless you’re a virologist, but a new strain that resurfaced in China has the potential to be pandemic. The H7N9 virus only caused mild illness in poultry until recently, but a genetic change means the new strain is deadly for birds. Now, H7N9 has led to more human deaths this season than any other season since it was detected in people four years ago.
Between September and March 1, 162 people perished from H7N9. Human cases have increased since December, with reports from eight different provinces in China. Hong Kong University research lab director Guan Yi told NPR, “We’re trying our best, but we still can’t control this virus. It’s too late for us to eradicate it.”
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called for increased surveillance. FAO animal health officer Sophie Von Dobschuetz said China has started intensified observation while the FAO Beijing office has been providing recommendations for the country’s ministry of agriculture. As with past avian flu strains, patients said they were exposed to infected birds or went to live bird markets.
Guan is concerned with how rapidly the H7N9 strain is evolving. He said ten years ago chickens were barely affected by the strain, but his lab’s research revealed the new strain can kill every chicken in his lab in 24 hours. There isn’t evidence the new strain will be deadlier in people, but when people do catch the virus from birds over one third of them perish. Guan said China’s government is already investigating vaccinating chickens.
“Today, science is more advanced, we have vaccines and it’s easy to diagnose. On the other hand, it now takes hours to spread new viruses all over the world,” Guan told NPR. “I think this virus poses the greatest threat to humanity than any other in the past 100 years.”