Scientists at MIT are reporting that the shape of structures in the avian flu virus closely match sugars found in the respiratory tracts of birds. That key link has helped spread bird flu among animals, but also explains why it's so hard for the virus to spread in humans. If the viral structure does mutate to resemble sugars in the human respiratory tract, though, an outbreak among humans would swiftly follow. Their work makes it easier for drug developers to identify a therapy that could be used to counter bird flu and also allows researchers to monitor the viral mutations that are taking place so they can better alert health authorities about any sudden risk of a pandemic.
"We're like a sitting duck, waiting for an H5N1 virus that can attach to us," Richard Cummings, an Emory University biochemist, tells Wired. "This research moves us to the point where we can start anticipating what might happen."
- read the report from Wired