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Live virus isolated from Alberta’s fatal H5N1 case to be studied at national lab

Vials of H5N1 flu vaccine by Beijing-based drug maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. are seen during production at Sinovac facilities in Beijing.

ANDY WONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory has isolated live H5N1 virus from respiratory specimens taken from an Alberta woman who died recently from infection with that bird flu virus.

The Winnipeg-based lab is working in collaboration with Alberta's provincial laboratory to sequence the entire genome of the virus, which the woman is believed to have contracted during a three-week trip to China in December.

The woman was unwell on her return trip on Dec. 27, was hospitalized Jan. 1 and died Jan. 3.

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This is the first time an H5N1 infection has been detected in North America.

Isolating the virus allows the national lab to do research on this H5N1.

In an e-mailed response to questions, officials at the Winnipeg lab say copies of the virus will be shared with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which is part of the World Health Organization's network of influenza reference laboratories.

They also say the full genetic blueprint of the virus will be entered into GISAID, an online influenza database accessible to flu researchers from around the globe.

Canadian and Alberta health officials have been working with authorities from China and from the WHO to try to figure out how the Alberta woman became infected with H5N1.

The woman was a nurse from Red Deer who was originally from China. She travelled there with her mother. The pair spent their entire vacation in Beijing and reportedly did not visit poultry markets or have exposure to poultry while there.

While H5N1 is considered to be endemic in China, there have been few recent reports of it there and none from Beijing. That fact, along with the woman's apparent lack of exposure to poultry, leaves authorities puzzled as to how she was exposed.

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