Since the H1N1 swine flu surfaced in 2009 in Mexico, researchers have worried that it could follow the pattern of the 1918 pandemic that killed at least 50 million people.
The 1918 virus actually emerged a year earlier. But it was not until a deadlier version developed in 1918 that the influenza truly wreaked havoc.
Now scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have examined H1N1 and discovered that a single mutation could make the flu more dangerous by removing a fundamental barrier. The 2009 H1N1, like the first version of the 1918 virus, had a protein structure that did not bind efficiently to cells in the human respiratory tract.
In their study, published in the journal PLoS ONE , the MIT researchers describe how they were able to create a version of H1N1 with a single mutation that greatly increased the virus’ binding strength. Furthermore, testing showed that the mutated version of the virus spread rapidly in ferrets which were used as a model for the human response to influenza.
By identifying this potentially dangerous mutation in H1N1, the scientists hope the World Health Organization will be able to flag any virus strain that has the mutation and respond quickly.
“If you look at the history, it takes a very small change to these viruses to have a dramatic effect,” said Ram Sasisekharan, senior author of the new paper.