• Electron microscope image of the deadly H7N9 virus.

Electron microscope image of the deadly H7N9 virus. (Photo : U.S. CDC)

China is bracing for further mutations of the deadly H7N9 avian flu virus that has killed 88 Chinese since January following the recent alarming discovery of a new mutation of the killer virus in southern China.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) reported the mutated H7N9 bird flu strain in southern China has been proven as more dangerous to poultry. The mutation was found in January in two people who had contracted H7N9 bird flu in Guangdong Province.

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China CDC said it has confirmed the finding and reported the case to the World Health Organization (WHO). On the basis of a joint study with experts from the agricultural sector, China CDC concluded that the mutation "does not make the virus more infectious to human at the moment."

The wording of this statement has raised fears new mutations might be deadlier to humans than the existing strain.

Scientists warn that bird flu can easily mutate. China CDC is concerned a mutation might make H7N9 more infectious to humans, and hence deadlier.

Chinese health and agricultural authorities will continue to study the mutated strain's source and its impact. They will also intensify monitoring to detect H7N9's further mutations, said China CDC.

China has stepped up its campaign to prevent the wider spread of the H7N9 avian flu. Apart from causing 88 deaths since January, H7N9 has infected 271 other persons. China CDC said most infected humans came into contact with poultry or dead birds.

In its latest update, WHO reported that between Jan. 19 and Feb. 14, a total of 304 additional laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection were reported to it from mainland China.

At the time of notification, there were 36 deaths; two cases had mild symptoms and 82 cases were diagnosed as either pneumonia (34) or severe pneumonia (48).