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April 10, 2014
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All it would take is five gene mutations of the H5N1 avian influenza virus to potentially create havoc on a global scale. Dutch researchers are reporting that if those mutations happen, the virus would become transmissible via coughing or sneezing, just like regular flu viruses. Currently, most cases of H5N1 arise after a person has had contact with sick or dead infected poultry.

To give an idea of how deadly the avian flu virus is, scientists at one point stopped conducting research on H5N1 over concerns that in the wrong hands it could be used as a biological weapon by terrorists. Of the 650 people infected since H5N1 was first identified in Hong Kong 17 years ago, 60 percent died because of the disease.

Health officials have feared that H5N1 would evolve, but they are not sure if the virus is likely to mutate outside of a laboratory. "The biggest unknown is whether the viruses are likely to gain the critical mutations naturally," says Richard Webby, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. "If they can appear readily, then it is very worrisome. If not, then there's still a major hurdle that these viruses have to get over to become human-transmissible."

During the study, which was published Thursday in the journal Cell, researchers used ferrets as stand-ins for humans. They sprayed an altered version of the H5N1 virus into a ferret's nose, then put it in a special cage with a ferret who had not been exposed. The cage was constructed to allow shared airflow without direct contact, and when the healthy ferret exhibited signs of the flu (loss of appetite and energy, ruffled fur) they knew the virus had spread through the air. Read more about the study and its findings at the Los Angeles Times. Catherine Garcia

9:19 a.m. ET

Ignorance can surely, at times, be bliss. Donald Trump appears "unusually subdued" these days, Axios co-founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei noted during their interview with the president-elect, and it might just be the weight of the office is suddenly coming clear.

"A top adviser told us the sober tone reflects a bumpy few days inside Trump Tower — and the realization that he's days away from truly running the nation," Allen and VandeHei write. Trump admitted as much himself:

Trump seemed, dare we say, humbled by recent intelligence briefings on global threats. Dick Cheney's friends used to tell us he was a decidedly darker, changed man once he started reading the daily intel reports after 9/11. Trump seemed moved by what he's now seeing.

"I've had a lot of briefings that are very … I don't want to say 'scary,' because I'll solve the problems," he said. "But … we have some big enemies out there in this country and we have some very big enemies — very big and, in some cases, strong enemies."

He offered a reminder many critics hope he never forgets: "You also realize that you've got to get it right because a mistake would be very, very costly in so many different ways." [Axios]

But lest you begin to miss the "old Trump," don't worry, he's not that much more subdued. As of Wednesday morning, he was still his usual self, taking furious shots at the media on Twitter. Jeva Lange

8:58 a.m. ET

Over half the population of the world still does not use the internet, a report by the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union has found. Fifty-three percent of the global population is "offline," with four-fifths of that population living in Asia-Pacific and Africa:

"The reasons for being offline or for limited internet use are manifold: many do not have access because they live in remote or difficult to reach areas and do not have access to digital or other basic infrastructure such as electricity or transport," the authors found. "Some do not see the benefits of being connected, often because of limited awareness, cultural impediments, or limited relevant digital content. Still others are illiterate, and many are too poor to afford even the most basic of Internet packages and devices. Existing inequalities in terms of income and education, particularly prominent among women, and other factors exacerbate the problem."

The ITU aims to have 60 percent of the world "online" by 2020. Read the full report here. Jeva Lange

8:39 a.m. ET

President-elect Donald Trump is now just hours away from being in a position to make America great again. But when pressed on how "greatness" can be "measured and sensed" by The Washington Post, Trump responded with a new vision for America: more military parades.

"Being a great president has to do with a lot of things, but one of them is being a great cheerleader for the country," Trump said. "And we're going to show the people as we build up our military, we're going to display our military.

"That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we're going to be showing our military," he added. [The Washington Post]

Critics reeled at the announcement. "Not reassuring to see an incoming leader [with] authoritarian tendencies talking about military parades in major cities," tweeted Dartmouth political science professor Brendan Nyhan.

Trump admitted the parades would not be enough. "Being a cheerleader or a salesman for the country is very important, but you still have to produce the results," he said. Jeva Lange

8:11 a.m. ET
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President Obama will hold his final news conference on Wednesday, two days before he leaves office, the White House said. Obama is wrapping up his eight-year presidency with his approval rating at 60 percent, according to a new CNN/ORC poll. That is his highest mark since 2009, putting him near the top in the list of outgoing presidents. He's outranked only by Bill Clinton, who had a 66 percent approval rating in January 2001, and Ronald Reagan, who left office in January 1989 with a 64 percent rating. Harold Maass

8:11 a.m. ET
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President-elect Donald Trump quietly met with Alabama-based Judge William Pryor on Saturday, people familiar with the unannounced meeting told The Associated Press. The move comes just a handful of days before Trump is supposed to announce his Supreme Court nominee.

Trump has already expressed that Pryor, 54, as well as Judge Diane Sykes, 59, are his favorites for the position. Pryor serves on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was the attorney general in Alabama between 1997 and 2004, following in the footsteps of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Sessions is Trump's choice for attorney general, and has praised Pryor as someone who "personally does not believe in abortion. He does not believe it is right. He believes it is wrong."

Pryor has slammed Roe v. Wade as the "worst abomination in the history of constitutional law," but his addition to the court would need the support of another Trump Supreme Court appointment before abortion rights could be greatly restructured.

If selected, Pryor would fill a vacancy on the court left by Justice Antonin Scalia after his death last year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused to give President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, a hearing; Garland's nomination recently expired after 293 days. Jeva Lange

7:41 a.m. ET
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President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for health and human services secretary, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), will face a gauntlet of unfriendly Democrats on Wednesday during his Senate confirmation hearing.

It will be the first of two hearings for Price, a six-term Republican who formerly served as the chair on the House Budget committee and once worked as an orthopedic surgeon. Price will face particular scrutiny from Democrats as he has long been an opponent of the Affordable Care Act and has proposed reworking the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Democrats could hit Price over his splits with Trump on privatizing Medicare, the cost of replacing ObamaCare, and Price's stock holdings related to health companies like Aetna and Zimmer Biomet Holdings, CNBC reports. Jeva Lange

7:41 a.m. ET

On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump flew down to Washington, D.C., to attend his first Inauguration Week event in the nation's capital, a black-tie dinner to honor his longtime friend and inauguration committee chairman, Tom Barrack. Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence both addressed the roughly 150 foreign diplomats and ambassadors, wealthy donors, and future members of his staff and Cabinet, with Pence assuring the diplomats that while Trump "will be a president who puts America first," his teams shares "a commitment to engage with all of the world."

Trump agreed, saying, "We have great respect for your countries," then lauded his own choice of Pence as running mate, even though he "had a couple of beauties I could have picked" instead. He went on to say he's proud of his Cabinet picks, asserting, "We have put together a team, I think the likes of which has never been assembled." And because he was speaking to diplomats, he singled out his pick for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. The confirmation process has been "tougher than he thought," Trump said. "He's led this charmed life. He goes into a country, takes the oil, goes into another country. It's tough dealing with these politicians, right?" The crowd laughed.

Some of Trump's other claims were slightly dubious, like his assertion that "they've just announced we're going to have record crowds coming" to his inauguration, including "the Bikers for Trump." "Boy, they had a scene today — I don't know if I'd want to ride one of those, but they do like me," Trump said. "They had a scene today where they had helicopters flying over a highway someplace in this country, and they had thousands of those guys coming into town."

Trump had made a similar claim on Twitter earlier Tuesday, and while the Bikers for Trump group has applied for a permit for 5,000 bikers to gather at a Washington park on Inauguration Day, the permit has not been issued yet, according to the National Parks Service. Also, those images and video of the bikers streaming into town shared on social media appear to be at least several months old and from elsewhere in the country. Peter Weber

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