Scientists have identified a “pretty amazing” gene that could have impressive practical applications to limit the spread of bird flu among humans.
The gene is already present in most humans, but before the study, the antiviral properties of it were not understood.
The discovery made in the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research study will allow scientists to determine which strains of the avian flu virus have the potential to jump to humans, improving the ability to formulate preventative measures and to establish whether different forms of bird flu could lead to future pandemics.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Rute Maria Pinto, the study’s lead author, told the Guardian. “We are all fairly proud about the outcome. … Now, when we find cases of bird flu, we can basically swab sick birds, carcasses or feces and find out whether the virus can overcome the BTN3A3 gene, simply by looking at its sequence and determining if this virus is more or less likely to jump into humans.”
According to the World Health Organization, there have been 878 cases of human infection with bird flu between January 2003 and July 14, 2023. Of these cases, 458 were fatal.
Bird flu is typically found within poultry in farm or domestic settings, but it has spread to wild birds, too. As some birds migrate around the world, it has the potential to travel far and wide.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom, 70 species of birds native to the country have tested positive for avian flu. Among them, geese, ducks, swans, and species of eagles have been infected.
While the discovery of the antiviral human gene has the potential to make a significant difference in terms of bird-to-human spread of the virus — and to identify the possibility for transmission between humans — there is not yet evidence to suggest it can help prevent the disease within bird species.
But it’s still an immensely positive discovery, especially as the world braces itself for future pandemic events following COVID-19.
“Understanding the barriers that block avian flu in humans means better-targeted solutions and better control measures to prevent the spillovers,” study lead professor Massimo Palmarini told the Guardian.
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