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According to New Scientist magazine, researchers in the Netherlands studying H5N1 -- commonly referred to as the bird flu or avian influenza -- have created a strain of the virus that's easily passed between mammals, and it's just as lethal as the original virus.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the H5N1 virus has infected more than 500 people in more than a dozen countries and is known to kill around 60 percent of those that become infected.
Ron Fouchier, a researcher at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, led the team that successfully created the mutation. Fouchier presented the findings at a conference in Malta in September and, according to NPR, is now seeking publication of his results
H5N1 bird flu can kill humans, but has not gone pandemic because it cannot spread easily among us. That might change: five mutations in just two genes have allowed the virus to spread between mammals in the lab. What's more, the virus is just as lethal despite the mutations.
"The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu," says Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who reported the work at a scientific meeting on flu last week in Malta.
"This shows clearly that H5 can change in a way that allows transmission and still cause severe disease in humans. It's scary," says Peter Doherty, a 1996 Nobel prizewinner for work in viral immunology.