Scientists warn new seal flu virus could be threat to human health

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Seal flu has been identified as the latest potential threat to human health.

A new flu virus identified in American harbour seals has the potential to pass to other mammals, including humans, according to scientists.

The H3N8 strain was discovered after the death of 162 New England harbour seals last year. Post-mortem examinations of five of the animals showed they were killed by a flu infection.

The strain is closely related to one that has been circulating in North American birds since 2002. But –unlike the bird strain – it has adapted to living in mammals. It has also evolved mutations known to ease transmission and cause more severe symptoms.

Specifically, the virus has the ability to target a protein found in human lungs.

Dr Anne Moscona, from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, who led the researchers, said: “There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven’t been exposed yet. It’s a combination we haven’t seen in disease before.”

One cause for concern was the fact that few scientists had considered the possibility of a bird flu virus infecting seals, said the researchers.

The warning is published in mBio, the online journal of 
the American Society for Microbiology.