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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

13 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 15 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.