Scientists are gaining a better understanding of the H7N9 bird flu that has sickened more than 130 people -- and killed more than 30 -- in China and Taiwan since February.
The latest research into the virus, which before this year had never been detected in humans, was published Thursday (subscription required for full text) in the online edition of the journal Science.
Working with ferrets, an animal that is often studied to gain insight into flu transmissibility in people, scientists in China, Canada and the U.S. found that H7N9 could spread from one ferret to another -- suggesting that it could also pass between humans. "Under appropriate conditions human-to-human transmission of the H7N9 virus may be possible," the co-authors wrote.
But H7N9 only spread efficiently when the ferrets were placed in the same cage and came into direct contact. The virus did not transmit easily between animals in adjacent cages, who couldn't touch but could breathe in the droplets from each others' sneezes and coughs.