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Virus Res. 2013 Dec 5;178(1):99-113. doi: 10.1016/j.virusres.2013.02.015. Epub 2013 Apr 22.

H5N1 receptor specificity as a factor in pandemic risk.

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Department of Chemical Physiology, The Scripps Research Institute, San Diego, CA 92037, USA. Electronic address:


The high pathogenicity of H5N1 viruses in sporadic infections of humans has raised concerns for its potential to acquire the ability to transmit between humans and emerge as a highly pathogenic pandemic virus. Because avian and human influenza viruses differ in their specificity for recognition of their host cell receptors, receptor specificity represents one barrier for efficient transmission of avian viruses in human hosts. Over the last century, each influenza virus pandemic has coincided with the emergence of virus with an immunologically distinct hemagglutinin exhibiting a 'human-type' receptor specificity, distinct from that of viruses with the same hemagglutinin circulating in zoonotic species. Recent studies suggest that it is possible for H5N1 to acquire human type receptor specificity, but this has not occurred in nature. This review covers what is known about the molecular basis for the switch between avian and human-type receptor specificity for influenza viruses that have successfully adapted to man, the potential for H5N1 to evolve to human-type receptor specificity and its relevance to pandemic risk.


H5N1; Hemagglutinin; Pandemic risk; Receptor specificity; Sialic acid

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