In 1997, a highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza virus was transmitted directly from live commercial poultry to humans in Hong Kong. Of the 18 people infected, six died. The molecular basis for the high virulence of this virus in mice was found to involve an amino acid change in the PB2 protein. To eliminate the source of the pathogenic virus, all birds in the Hong Kong markets were slaughtered. In 1999, another avian influenza virus of H9N2 subtype was transmitted to two children in Hong Kong. In 2000-2002, H5N1 avian viruses reappeared in the poultry markets of Hong Kong, although they have not infected humans. Continued circulation of H5N1 and other avian viruses in Hong Kong raises the possibility of future human influenza outbreaks. Moreover, the acquisition of properties of human viruses by the avian viruses currently circulating in southeast China might result in a pandemic.