Researchers have found a protein that may explain why the H5N1 strain is so deadly to people, and in just one study, have doubled the amount of publicly available data on bird flu genes.
In a paper published online today (26 January) by Science, the researchers say a flu virus protein called NS1 could play a key role in disrupting infected cells.
The structure of NS1 varies between different flu viruses. The researchers think that bird flu's NS1 can disrupt human cells in a way that a human flu virus's NS1 cannot.
Clayton Naeve of the US-based St Jude Children's Research Hospital led the group that looked at 336 samples of bird flu virus collected over 30 years, including samples from H5N1 outbreaks since 1997.
The team analysed 2,196 new genes and completed the genetic sequences of 196 different bird flu viruses. Overall, they doubled the amount of genetic data available.
John Oxford, a virology professor at the Queen Mary School of Medicine, United Kingdom, says the new findings would inspire "shock and awe".
"It is a wonderful paper that puts these genetic sequences into the public domain for the first time," he told SciDev.Net. "They have brought NS1 to everyone's attention and also show that the viruses are rampantly swapping genes."
Experts fear that such gene swapping could create a new bird flu virus that can spread easily between people and spark a human flu pandemic capable of killing millions of people.
Naeve's team has made the genetic data freely available in the GenBank database — run by the US National Institutes of Health — so researchers around the world can study it.
Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 152 people, killing 83 of them.