Virologists know its name: H7N9. What they don’t yet know is whether this novel avian influenza virus — first reported in humans in China less than two weeks ago — will rapidly fizzle out, become established in animal hosts to fuel future human outbreaks, or morph into a virus that can spread easily between people and spark a deadly pandemic.
In a frantic effort to find answers, scientists are bearing down on H7N9 on multiple fronts. They are testing wild birds and thousands of domestic fowl; analysing the viruses they find; and trying to trace people who have been exposed to infected patients. Chinese health authorities say that they have 400 laboratories looking for genetic changes in the virus.
“We are going to be sitting with bated breath over the next month to find out what happens,” says Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis. As Nature went to press, 24 human cases, including 8 deaths, had been reported in 11 cities, some a few hundred kilometres apart, in eastern China (seemap). So many cases in such a short time over such a wide area — up from three cases in two cities a week ago — is “a very concerning situation”, says Osterholm.
Scientists urgently want to find out which sources are stoking the human infections that result in flu-like symptoms and, in most reported cases, severe pneumonia. So far, investigations of the cases remain largely inconclusive: some patients had contact with poultry or other animals just before falling ill, whereas others had not. Late last week, the H7N9 virus was found in chickens, pigeons and ducks in live bird markets in Shanghai and Hangzhou — making markets the leading suspected source. Authorities have since culled tens of thousands of birds and closed down markets in Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou.
The genetic sequences of the H7N9 viruses found in the birds are highly similar to those isolated from human patients, says Chao-Tan Guo, a virologist at the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in Hangzhou. Although the virus might have come from other sources, including mammals, the pattern of many human cases over a wide area in a short time could be explained by live markets alone, because birds from one or a few sources would be transported to multiple markets, says Malik Peiris, a flu virologist at the University of Hong Kong.