Flu’s Fundamental Mystery

Some 12 years ago, surges in deadly H5N1 bird flu cases sparked a flurry of activity—experimental vaccines tested, antivirals stockpiled. Then it faded into obscurity; no one quite knows why.

Certain things about influenza “don’t quite add up completely,” says Nancy Cox, the CDC’s former flu chief.

H5N1 hasn’t disappeared—the shape-shifting virus has just taken on new identities, which for now are causing fewer problems. As much as that relieves flu scientists, they know it could change in an instant.

Today, H5N1 “doesn’t do very well. But two or three mutations later, we don’t know,” says the WHO’s Richard Webby.

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