Taiwanese researchers announced on Thursday that they have identified the first human case of a new bird flu strain, H6N1, that can evidently jump directly from chickens to human hosts. That has public health professionals worried about the rise of flu strains that traditionally stay within bird species mutating to the point that they can be transmitted to humans.
“This is the first report of human infection with a wild avian influenza A H6N1 virus,” wrote the researchers in the journal Lancet. “These viruses continue to evolve and accumulate changes, increasing the potential risk of human-to-human transmission. Our report highlights the continuous need for preparedness for a pandemic of unpredictable and complex avian influenza.”
This past spring, another bird flu strain — H7N9 — began rapidly spreading through the Chinese population. Health officials warned that the strain was “one of the most lethal” of its kind, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued warnings to hospitals to be on the lookout for potential bird flu cases. Researchers remained baffled at exactly how the virus had been spreading to the human population.
Although it’s too early to tell precisely how the new H6N1 virus infected its human host, Taiwanese scientists speculate that a version of the virus in chickens may have transformed just enough to be able to latch onto cells in the human nasal and airway passage. That means this version of the flu could potentially spread through the air.