The virulence of a virus is determined by its ability to adversely affect the host cell, host organism or population of host organisms. Influenza A viruses have been responsible for four pandemics of severe human respiratory disease this century. Avian species harbour a large reservoir of influenza virus strains, which can contribute genes to potential new pandemic human strains. The fundamental importance of understanding the role of each of these genes in determining virulence in birds and humans was dramatically emphasised by the recent direct transmission of avian influenza A viruses to humans, causing fatal infection but not community spread. An understanding of the factors involved in transmission between avian and mammalian species should assist in the development of better surveillance strategies for early recognition of influenza A virus strains having human pandemic potential, and possibly in the design of anti-viral strategies. BioEssays 25:657–671, 2003. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.