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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.

Go deeper

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.