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birds likely cause of pandemic

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    Disastrous 1918 Flu Linked to Birds, Study Says

    Stefan Lovgren

    Solving an 86-year-old medical mystery, British scientists have determined the structure of the so-called "Spanish flu" virus that jumped from birds to humans in 1918, killing more than 20 million people worldwide.
    In two separate studies, researchers from the Medical Research Council in London showed that the virus likely derived from an avian virus and retained some key characteristics of its avian precursor that caught the human immune system off-guard.

    Although the discovery will probably not have an immediate impact on the current outbreak of chicken flu in Asia, the work will help scientists better understand flu viruses and their transmission from birds to humans.

    The new evidence suggests that "receptor binding," the initial event in virus infection in which a foreign virus mixes with human proteins, is perhaps more important than the virulence of the virus in determining risk of transmission.

    "This paper is important because of the knowledge it brings about how these viruses, which originate in birds, can jump to humans," Sir John Skehel, the Medical Research Council's lead scientist on the project, said in a prepared statement. "This allows us to track and monitor the changes in the virus for public health purposes, even though it does not allow us to predict or prevent future forms of flu."

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