In April of this year researches studying the H7N9 bird flu virus in China advised global governments to get prepared for the worst case scenario. According to the World Health Organization, H7N9 is one the most lethal influenza strains ever identified because it mutates eight times faster than a normal flu virus, and according to official records, has a death-to-infection ratio of about 25%.
It was initially believed that the virus could only be transmitted to humans who have had direct contact with poultry. After 36 H7N9 deaths and 131 of infections officially reported since the virus was first identified, the worst case scenario that many feared may now be on the horizon.
The Sun China Morning Post is reporting that researches have confirmed that, not only can the virus be transmitted from one human to another, but it has gone airborne.
The H7N9 bird flu virus can be transmitted not only through close contact but by airborne exposure, a team at the University of Hong Kong found after extensive laboratory experiments.
Though the virus appears to have been brought under control recently, the researchers urged the Hong Kong authorities to maintain strict surveillance, which should include not only poultry but humans and pigs.
In the study, to be published today in the journal Science, ferrets were used to evaluate the infectivity of H7N9. It was found the virus could spread through the air, from one cage to another, albeit less efficiently.
Inoculated ferrets were infected before the appearance of most clinical symptoms. This means there may be more cases than have been detected or reported.
“People may be transmitting the virus before they even know that they’ve got it,” Zhu said.
It’s important to note that the Chinese government has never been very straight forward about statistics, especially if they involve negative perceptions of their country, so in all likelihood the H7N9 virus has infected countless others.
Though it’s been called one of the most lethal flu viruses in history by WHO, Chinese scientists have downplayed the threat by claiming the effects are “mild,” and the U.S. government has up until now made no decision on whether to move forward with a vaccine for this particular strain. Earlier reports indicate that the virus is resistant to Tamiflu, a drug commonly used to treat most flu symptoms.
H7N9 is reportedly now under control in China, but we know for a fact that the virus jumped to Taiwan in April, and it may have spread elsewhere. Given that research shows the virus can spread through the air before symptoms appear, it’s certainly possibly that an outbreak is in its preliminary phase right now.
Curiously, the United Nations reports that the virus has already cost the global economy some $6.5 billion in losses. Those are massive numbers given that only 131 official cases have been reported.
We’ll know soon enough if the Chinese government has controlled the outbreak among its one billion population, and if it’s taken hold in other countries. If it’s airborne, the contagion will spread like any common cold or flu.
Pandemics have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people throughout history, and once they start they are very hard to control. With H7N9 having a mutation rate that is eight times faster than other flu viruses, it could very well become even deadlier than it is now. Moreover, it could become even more contagious over time.
The only thing we can do at this point is to wait for news as it becomes available and take preemptive steps to prepare for the possibility of a widespread outbreak.