Ear­lier this month, the U.S. gov­ern­ment declared that the emerging H7N9 bird flu “poses a sig­nif­i­cant poten­tial for a public health emer­gency.” The virus, a rel­a­tive of other bird flus we’ve seen pre­vi­ously like H1N1 and H5N1, orig­i­nated in China and results in a severe res­pi­ra­tory infec­tion and, in some cases, death. While the virus is not, at this time, trans­mis­sible between humans, researchers believe that just a few genetic muta­tions could change that. Net­work sci­en­tist Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of physicscom­puter sci­ence, and health sci­ences, is map­ping the disease’s pro­gres­sion in his lab. We asked him to dis­cuss the pan­demic poten­tial of the virus and explain how this strain dif­fers from those in the past.

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