Having studied samples from birds for the H7N9 virus, researchers at the University of Hong Kong said genetic tests suggested that the virus entered domestic ducks from wild birds and then infected chickens, which are probably the origin of infection in humans, says the study published Wednesday in the journal 'Nature', Xinhua reported.
The research team also discovered a new virus called H7N7 in chickens. Laboratory tests showed H7N7 was also able to cause severe pneumonia in ferrets - a domesticated form of the European polecat - which are usually used as proxies for humans in flu research.
Zhu Huachen, one of the leading authors of the paper, told Xinhua that H7 viruses probably transferred from ducks to chickens on at least two independent occasions and that re-assortment with H9N2 viruses generated the H7N9 outbreak lineage.
Although the H7N7 virus carries only some of the molecular markers present in the human H7N9 isolates, the authors suggested the current pandemic threat could extend beyond H7N9 viruses, and that long-term influenza surveillance was essential for early warning of new viruses and inter-species transmission events.
The H7N9 bird flu has killed 45 people on the Chinese mainland since the first human infection was confirmed in late March this year, a health official said last week.