The swine flu virus could transform into a more serious “Armageddon virus” if it mixes with avian flu which is circulating in southeast Asia, a leading virologist said on Wednesday.
Health officials believe it is only a matter of time before swine flu reaches countries where avian flu is endemic, raising the prospect of the viruses merging into a lethal strain.
John Oxford, a virologist at Queen Mary, University of London, said an Armageddon virus was a worst-case scenario, but could not be ruled out.
“My concern is that in the rush and worry over pig flu, we forget about avian flu. There’s a temptation for everyone to stampede in response to the immediate threat and take their eye off bird flu and that could easily bounce back to bite us,” he said.
Fears that a bird flu pandemic was imminent led many countries to draw up the emergency plans that have swung into action this week. In Britain, the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza were stockpiled in anticipation of bird flu emerging from Asia.
This year, the bird flu virus, known as H5N1, has infected seven people in China and killed four. All three people who contracted the virus in Vietnam this year have died. A further 16 cases have been reported in Egypt, though none have been fatal.
The swine and avian flu viruses could merge if both infect the same animal at the same time. The most lethal result could be a virus that is as infectious as swine flu and as deadly as avian flu.
If the swine virus does change dramatically as it spreads, it will cause an even greater headache for manufacturers who are already expecting to face difficult decisions over which vaccine to prioritize. Most companies have just begun making seasonal flu vaccine for the winter, but may have to stop.
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