On Tuesday, health officials in China reported the first known human case of a particular strain of avian influenza called H10N3. The victim, a 41-year-old man residing in Jiangsu, was hospitalized in late April and diagnosed with the virus on May 28. Officials said that the man has since recovered and would be leaving the hospital soon, but other relevant details are so far scant.
Avian flu has long been considered a potential threat for major epidemics or pandemics. That’s because these viruses, while native to water birds, can be passed along to different species of animals, sometimes including humans. If one of these viruses picks up the right assortment of genes (either through mutations or recombination with other strains) by the time it infects people, it could create a highly contagious and virulent strain of influenza, one that our bodies may not recognise as easily as the garden variety flu. When that happens, a pandemic can emerge. (The 1957 flu pandemic is one such example.) Not all strains of avian influenza are known to be capable of infecting humans, though, which makes this recent discovery all the more concerning.
China’s National Health Commission said this patient is the first person believed to have contracted H10N3, possibly through contact with poultry. H10N3 is considered a low-pathogenic virus, meaning it’s not highly dangerous among its natural bird hosts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the same would be true for a strain that can infect people. But according to officials, no one else that came in contact with the man is thought to have contracted the virus, and the risk of it spreading widely among birds is thought to be low. The man himself is now in stable condition and is preparing to be discharged soon, officials added.
Further genetic testing will tell scientists how this strain may have changed over time to become capable of infecting humans, as well as whether it may pose a unique threat to us. For now, though, there doesn’t seem to be immediate concern about the virus. Most cases of avian influenza found in humans do not lead to widespread outbreaks, with the last large outbreak being documented between 2016 to 2017, from a strain of H7N9.
That said, scientists remain cautious about the prospect of avian influenza eventually sparking a new major epidemic for good reason. Earlier this month, scientists from China warned in the journal Science that the potential of avian influenza viruses to cross from animals to humans “warrants continuous, vigilant monitoring to avert further spillovers that could result in disastrous pandemics.”