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First the bad could still mutate. But this gives scientists a leg up in identifying which strains would pose a pandemic threat and a reliable indicators as to when they've reached a danger point.

To date, roughly 103 people have been infected with the H5N1 avian influenza virus--or bird flu. Yet few, if any, of them have spread the disease to other humans. A virus's ability to spread is the key to its ability to create a pandemic. New research shows that this bird flu currently lacks the protein key to unlock certain cells in the human upper respiratory tract, preventing it from spreading via a sneeze or a cough.

Virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and University of Tokyo and his colleagues tested strains of H5N1 isolated from respiratory tissue in the noses, throats and lungs of infected humans. Although regular human flu viruses bound easily with the receptors found in the nose and throat cells, H5N1 strains attached only to those receptors on cells found in the deepest regions of the lungs.

"Deep in the respiratory system, receptors for avian viruses, including avian H5N1 viruses, are present," Kawaoka explains. "But these receptors are rare in the upper portion of the respiratory system. For the viruses to be transmitted efficiently, they have to multiply in the upper portion of the respiratory system so that they can be transmitted by coughing and sneezing."
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