By Betsy McKay
Public-health officials are breathing a small sigh of relief that the H1N1 swine flu virus hasn’t mutated to become more deadly since emerging last spring. But what are the chances it will?
To find out, scientists at the CDC recently launched experiments in the agency’s labs in which they infected ferrets with both the new H1N1 virus and the highly lethal H5N1 avian flu virus to see if they might “reassort” to create a new hybrid.
The scientists want to know whether a combination of the H1N1 virus -– highly transmissible, but not terribly deadly -– and the H5N1 flu virus could create an easily transmissible, deadly scourge. The H5N1 virus has only sickened 440 people world-wide since 2003 and generally isn’t transmitted from one person to another. But it has killed 262, or about 60%, of those people, according to the World Health Organization.