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Although the bat flu does not currently pose a threat to humans, the CDC team cautioned that more research is needed to determine if the virus could be a possible source of human flu.
"This is the first time an influenza virus has been identified in bats, but in its current form the virus is not a human health issue," study lead author Dr. Suxiang Tong, team leader of the Pathogen Discovery Program in the CDC's viral diseases division, said in a CDC news release. "The study is important because the research has identified a new animal species that may act as a source of flu viruses."
For the bat flu to affect humans, the investigators pointed out that it would have to swap genetic information with another flu virus, giving it some genetic properties of a human flu virus. This process, called reassortment, could potentially lead to a new flu capable of infecting humans.
The CDC study, published online Feb. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that some initial research revealed that the bat flu genes are compatible with human flu viruses.
"Fortunately, initial laboratory testing suggests the new virus would need to undergo significant changes to become capable of infecting and spreading easily among humans," study co-author Dr. Ruben Donis, chief of the Molecular Virology and Vaccines Branch in the CDC's influenza division, explained in the news release. "A different animal -- such as a pig, horse or dog -- would need to be capable of being infected with both this new bat influenza virus and human influenza viruses for reassortment to occur."
The CDC said it is working with global disease experts to track animal flu viruses that could potentially affect people, such as H1N1, which caused a pandemic in 2009.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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