Seal flu could threaten humans

A newly discovered influenza strain among New England harbor seals could potentially spread to humans and wildlife, according to researchers.

The researchers said that the seal flu virus must be monitored to predict possible new strains and to prevent an animal-based pandemic flu, HealthDay reports.

"There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven't been exposed yet," Anne Moscona, the editor of the report, said, according to HealthDay. "It's a combination we haven't seen in disease before."

Researchers from multiple organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Columbia University, co-wrote the report. The scientists analyzed the DNA of a virus linked to the death of 162 harbor seals off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 2011. The report found that the seal flu, identified as H3N8, has similarities to a strain found in birds in North America since 2002. The strain contains mutations that may make it easier to spread.

"Flu could emerge from anywhere and our readiness has to be much better than we previously realized," Moscona said, according to HealthDay. "We need to be very nimble in our ability to identify and understand the potential risks posed by new viruses emerging from unexpected sources. It's important to realize that viruses can emerge through routes that we haven't considered. We need to be alert to those risks and ready to act on them."

The report was published online in the Tuesday edition of mBio.