Mutations in bird flu virus could spark devastating pandemic spread from human to human

THE bird flu virus is just a few tiny mutations away from being spread from person to person – leading to a potentially “devastating” pandemic – a leading scientist has warned.

08:34, Wed, May 27, 2015 | UPDATED: 08:51, Wed, May 27, 2015

Bird flu imageGETTY

A future bird flu outbreak could kill tens of millions, according to the virus expert

Professor Derek Smith, of Cambridge University, said a fresh outbreak could kill on a scale not seen since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic – which killed 50 million people.

He said: “If that virus in our lab emerged today it would be as devastating as in 1918.”

But efforts to better understand the virus and its mutations had been hampered by a moratorium on laboratory testing,  he said.

If that virus in our lab emerged today it would be as devastating as in 1918

Professor Derek Smith

In 2012, research was halted amid fears the deadly virus would fall into the hands of terrorists.

He said: “Remember how dangerous a flu pandemic can be. Was it really the right decision back then to stop this research?

“We are in a situation where we could actually know more information about this virus.

“Within a couple of months we could know how it could transmit between humans and how likely that is to happen.”

Bird flu outbreakGETTY

The last reported case of H5N1 in the UK was in early 2008

Currently, avian flu – as it is also known – spreads among birds and only affects humans in rare cases.

However, Prof Smith, a senior World Health Organisation (WHO) infectious diseases expert, said the virus was just two, small mutations away from being transmittable between people.

Studies have shown that the virus only needs five amino acid mutations to be spread among humans, with three of those subtle changes already seen in parts of the world.

Prof Smith, who was speaking at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales, added that an outbreak was “inherently unpredictable”, warning that avian flu remained the the most deadly virus.

H5N1 and H7N9 are the only strains to have infected humans.

H5N1 first infected humans in Hong Kong in 1997, but the virus reemerged in 2003, leading to the deaths of 377 people.

The WHO – the world’s leading health body – has admitted that the risk of another bird flu pandemic remains “unknown”.

Of the two identified strains, the WHO says: “most humans likely have no immunity to them, and they can cause severe disease and death in humans.”

The disease often shows no symptoms but has led to large-scale outbreaks in chicken and other poultry farming.