When influenza viruses that infect birds and humans meet in the same cell, they can shuffle their genomes and produce new strains that might have pandemic potential. Think of this process, called reassortment, as viruses having sex.
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In the last several years, public health officials have been monitoring two varieties of bird flu viruses with alarming properties: H7N9 and H5N8. Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have been probing the factors that limit reassortment between these strains and a well-known strain (H3N2) that has been dominating the last few flu seasons in the United States.
The good news is that “packaging signals” on the bird flu viral RNA genomes were often incompatible with the H3N2 viruses. That means it could be difficult for segments of the genome from the bird viruses to get wrapped up with the human viruses. Mix + match still occurred at a low level, particularly with H5N8.
The results are scheduled for publication the week of Feb. 11 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences