"Chinese scientists have identified a gene in the H5N1 bird flu virus which they say is responsible for its virulence in poultry, opening the way for new vaccines.
"We can now understand how this virus becomes lethal and the molecular basis for its pathogenicity," Bu Zhigao at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute told Reuters.
The Chinese researchers zeroed in on the virulent gene after analyzing two closely related strains of the H5N1 obtained from infected geese in southern Guangdong province in 1996 -- one highly pathogenic in chickens and the other harmless.
The scientists designed four genetically modified viruses each containing one of the four genes in question and tested them on laboratory chickens.
Only chickens infected with the modified virus containing the highly pathogenic gene died. The other chickens had no signs of disease, the scientists wrote in the November issue of the Journal of Virology.
"Now that we know the special role of the (highly pathogenic) NS1 gene, we can think about developing a vaccine," Bu said, adding that a vaccine which neutralizes the gene known as NS1 could be quickly designed.
"Technically, that can happen very soon, but it is the tests and other procedures that will take a long time."
That's all well and good, but how do we know the gene responsible for poultry deaths is the same one that causes its virulence in humans? And will this only lead to more poultry vaccines, or human ones?