“It is possible that this virus can evolve further to form the basis of a future pandemic threat,” said Maria Zhu Huachen, an assistant professor of research at HKU’s school of public health.
The team, which officially announced their findings yesterday, discovered that both ferrets and pigs could contract H7N9.
Zhu said the more time sick chickens and pigs spent in close contact, the greater the likelihood of the two viruses – the bird flu and swine flu – combining and mutating into a new virus strain.
“A major intervention is to separate pigs and chickens in the market to minimise the risk of the virus spreading to the pig,” said HKU virologist Guan Yi.
The team found that, compared with the swine flu, H7N9 spread less easily between species and was also transmitted less efficiently.
The virus can spread from ferret to ferret or from pig to pig, but is inefficient in spreading from pigs to other mammals.
But the study also suggested that it was possible for a larger human population to have already contracted the disease – although the symptoms they suffered might be mild.
“As the virus can be spread among ferrets, it’s possible it can be transmitted among humans [too]. Ferrets are the best model for the study in human influenza as [they are] very similar to humans,” Zhu said.