Bird flu HAS mutated to infect people: Fresh pandemic fears as scientists on ground zero in Cambodia find H5N1 strain that killed 11-year-old girl had evolved to infect human cells better
A bird flu strain that claimed the life of a girl in Cambodia had evolved to better infect human cells, in a worrying sign.
Scientists on the ground who made the discovery said the finding ‘needs to be treated with the utmost concern’.
They added that there were ‘some indications’ that it was already spreading among people based on its new mutations.
The 11-year-old girl, from Prey Veng province, became the world’s first victim of the H5N1 virus in 2023 last week.
Her father has also tested positive for the virus but has not developed symptoms.
A worker catches chickens at a market in Phnom Penh on February 24, 2023. The father of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who died earlier in the week from bird flu tested positive for the virus, health officials said
A young girl from Prey Veng in Cambodia (shown on map) died from the H5N1 bird flu this year. She was infected with the virus in mid-February and is the nation’s first case since 2014
Dr Erik Karlsson, an emerging diseases expert who led the team at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia that decoded the genetic sequence of the girl’s virus, warned that it differed from that taken from birds.
He told Sky News: ‘There are some indications that this virus has gone through a human.
‘Any time these viruses get into a new host they’ll have certain changes that allow them to replicate a little bit better or potentially bind to the cells in our respiratory tract a little bit better.’
He added: ‘This was a zoonotic spillover [of a virus infecting a new species] and [that] needs to be treated with the utmost concern.
‘Something may be happening here in Cambodia and something may be happening on the other side of the world in South America, but we don’t really know what could cause the problem tomorrow.’
Genetic testing on the virus was carried out in just 24 hours, scientists said.
It revealed that the girl had caught the 220.127.116.11c strain of H5N1, which is endemic to wild birds and poultry in Cambodia.
This differs from the 18.104.22.168b type that has spread rapidly around the world and infected many birds and mammals.
But Dr Karlsson said this was no reason to downplay the threat.
At present bird flu struggles to spread between humans because it does not have the mutations to allow it to bind to receptors close to the lungs surface or in the nasal passage.