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Vol. 343 ,
- 6 March 2014 1:04 pm , Vol. 343 , #6175
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As Swine Flu Spreads, Its Chances to Mutate Increase
29 April 2009 12:39 pm
TOKYO—Swine flu has reached Asia, with South Korea reporting its first suspected case yesterday. Like the vast majority of other cases outside Mexico so far, it is mild, but virologist Kennedy Shortridge warns that is no reason for complacency. He says that the farther the virus spreads, the more chance it will mix, or reassort, with other flu viruses in circulation and turn into something more lethal. "The prospects for change [in the virus] are considerable and worrying," he says.
Shortridge is a professor emeritus at the University of Hong Kong, where he led investigations into the initial emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997, when it killed six of the 18 people it infected. The city squelched that outbreak by slaughtering all 1.4 million chickens and ducks in the territory. H5N1 re-emerged in 2003 and since then has claimed 257 lives while devastating poultry flocks throughout much of Asia and parts of Africa. He has long advocated global cooperation in the surveillance of circulating flu viruses to spot emerging new strains so public health officials could plan a response and drug companies could get a head start in making vaccines.
Shortridge was among the first to suggest that pigs might act as mixing vessels for new combinations of viruses. And the swine flu now spreading from Mexico "fits into the mixing vessel hypothesis," he says.