As mutating viruses go, influenza species are notorious for making sloppy copies of themselves - and this behavior presents a challenge to public health officials who are charged with containing more dangerous and widespread disease. On Wednesday, a Chinese disease expert spoke out
on the possibility of a dangerous combination between a more dangerous H1N1 swine flu virus mutation and China's endemic H5N1 bird flu species.
A swap in genetic code between these two dangerous viruses could create a superbug pandemic with the potential to wipe out the majority of human populations worldwide.
"China, as you know, is different from other countries. Inside China, H5N1 has been existing for some time, so if there is really a reassortment between H1N1 and H5N1, it will be a disaster," Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases in China's southern Guangdong province told Reuters.
Recently, Norwegian scientists discovered a more virulent mutation
of the H1N1 swine flu virus. Their discovery was immediately followed by disclosures from the World Health Organization that this same mutation has been observed in several countries, including China. While experts believe
that current vaccines are effective against the mutation, the WHO disclosures remained disconcerting.
China faces unique challenges with morphing influenza appearing somewhat regularly throughout their population. Late in 2002, China and the world were introduced to the SARS coronavirus
- an event that nearly touched off a deadly pandemic. Since then, the H5N1 virus - known also as bird flu - has trumped SARS as the most likely China-based candidate to emerge as a global pandemic.
The H1N1 swine flu virus that emerged from Mexico earlier this year took many by surprise. And it quickly became the real thing - as pandemics go.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that the H5N1 virus had shown its face again in poultry in Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
"First, it places those in direct contact with birds -- usually rural folk and farm workers -- at risk of catching the often-fatal disease. Second, the virus could undergo a process of "reassortment" with another influenza virus and produce a completely new strain," WHO said, according to Reuters.