SWINE flu has been discovered in birds, prompting fears that a more dangerous and easily transmitted strain will emerge.
Health experts last night confirmed that the H1N1 pig flu virus has infected turkeys. It is the first case of H1N1 in birds.
Scientists warned the outbreak in poultry could lead to a deadly flu outbreak if it mixes with lethal avian flu.
Tests have shown sick turkeys at two farms in Chile were struck down with the swine flu virus that has caused a pandemic in humans.
Britain’s leading flu expert, Professor John Oxford, said: “The last thing we want is a universal virus that goes everywhere.
“The avian flu virus is embedded in birds in Egypt and south-east Asia and this outbreak could easily hop across and mix with this, increasing the risk of the swine flu virus mixing with avian flu which is more dangerous.”
Experts with the United Nations in Rome and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are now monitoring the outbreak in turkeys, which has so far caused only relatively mild symptoms in the birds.
‘The last thing we want is a universal virus that goes everywhere... risk of mixing is dangerous’
Mr Oxford, Professor of Virology at St Bartholomew’s and the Royal London Hospital, said this meant cases could be missed.
“It is unsettling that the animals are not dying as this means it is harder to detect. If you don’t recognise the danger you are not likely to take action.” The Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation also warned that the virus could become more potent.
A statement said: “The current H1N1 virus strain is a mixture of human, pig and bird genes and has proved to be very contagious but no more deadly than common seasonal flu viruses. However, it could become more dangerous if it adds virulence by combining with H5N1, commonly known as avian flu, which is far more deadly but harder to pass along among humans.”
Last week Britain accepted its first batches of swine flu vaccine, as the Government began to arm itself against a second wave of the pandemic in winter.
The World Health Organisation has been warning governments for months to prepare for a resurgence of the virus in the winter.
The doses arrived as millions of schoolchildren prepared to return to school in the next two weeks, with concerns that the virus could spread easily between classrooms.
A Health Department spokeswoman said the vaccine was delivered by US pharmaceutical company Baxter and it could be approved for public distribution by early October.
The vaccine will initially be used on at-risk groups, such as people with asthma and diabetes, officials said. Pregnant women, health workers and people with underlying health problems will get the vaccines before the rest of the population.
Britain is the European country hardest hit by the virus. So far 66 people have died.