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New Influenza Virus Highlights Risk of Pandemic Flu From Animals

The authors say it is crucial to monitor viruses such as this one, which originated in birds and adapted to infect mammals, so that scientists can better predict the emergence of new strains of influenza and prevent pandemics in the future.

"There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven't been exposed yet. It's a combination we haven't seen in disease before,” said Dr. Anne Moscona of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, the editor of the report.

The H3N8 strain in New England harbor seals may represent the first sighting of a new group of influenza viruses with the potential to persist and move between species. In 2009, the H1N1 "swine flu" virus that emerged in humans apparently originated from a reassortment of flu viruses found in birds, pigs, and humans.

The study published in mBio analyzed the DNA of a virus associated with a “die-off” of 162 New England harbor seals in 2011. Autopsies of five of the seals revealed that they apparently died from infection with a type of influenza called H3N8, which is closely related to a flu strain that has been circulating in North American birds since 2002. Unlike the strain in birds, this virus has adapted to living in mammals and has mutations that are known to make flu viruses more transmissible and that cause more severe disease.

The H3N8 virus also has the ability to target a receptor called SAa-2,6––a protein found in the human respiratory tract.

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