Jun 19, 2017

Scientists find mutations that may let bird flu spread among humans

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

Scientists have identified mutations that could allow a lethal strain of bird flu to become more contagious among humans, according to a study in PLOS Pathogens.

Why it matters: The H7N9 strain of bird flu has killed at least a third of the estimated 1500 people it has infected in China since 2013 - and there has been a surge in cases this year. The strain currently doesn't pass easily between people and most cases have occurred after people come in contact with infected poultry. But public health officials are concerned about the potential for H7N9 to mutate into a contagious virus, like other flu viruses have in the past.

What they did: Scientists at the Scripps Institute made mutations to a protein called hemagglutinin that allows the virus to attach to host cells and found that different combinations of three changes in the protein allowed H7N9 to attach to cells found in humans' upper respiratory tract. If the virus evolved to have those mutations, it could theoretically then spread between people by coughing and sneezing, like human flu viruses.

Yes, but... The researchers only altered a fragment of the virus and studied the effect in isolated cells. To assess whether the changes actually yield a virus that can be transmitted, they would like to test them in ferrets (which are often used as a model for studying flu transmission in humans). But, there is currently a moratorium in the U.S. on "gain of function" research that gives a pathogen more capability to cause disease. NPR reports that could soon be lifted.

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China tries to contain coronavirus, as Apple warns of earnings impact

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's NHC; Note: China refers to mainland China and the Diamond Princess is the cruise ship offshore Yokohama, Japan. Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

As China pushes to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus — placing around 780 million people under travel restrictions, per CNN — the economic repercussions continue to be felt globally as companies like Apple warn of the impact from the lack of manufacturing and consumer demand in China.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 1,775 people and infected more than 70,000 others, mostly in mainland China. There are some signs that new cases are growing at a slower rate now, although the World Health Organization said Monday it's "too early to tell" if this will continue.

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Apple will miss quarterly earnings estimates due to coronavirus

Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple issued a rare earnings warning on Monday, saying it would not meet quarterly revenue expectations due to the impact of the coronavirus, which will limit iPhone production and limit product demand in China.

Why it matters: Lots of companies rely on China for production, but unlike most U.S. tech companies, Apple also gets a significant chunk of its revenue from sales in China.

America's dwindling executions

The Trump administration wants to reboot federal executions, pointing to a 16-year lapse, but Pew Research reports the government has only executed three people since 1963.

The big picture: Nearly all executions in the U.S. are done by states. Even those have been steadily dropping for two decades, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) — marking a downward trend for all executions in the country.