New swine flu with human 'pandemic potential' discovered in China
Experts say they have identified a new strain of flu, carried by pigs, in China that has the potential to become a pandemic. But it doesn't pose an immediate threat, according to scientists.
As we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have identified a new strain of flu -- carried by pigs -- in China that they say has the potential to become a pandemic. But there is no imminent threat, according to experts.
A team of Chinese researchers looked at influenza viruses found in pigs from 2011 to 2018 and found a “G4” strain of H1N1 that has “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus”, according to the paper, published by the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
While the new strain of flu is not an immediate problem, it needs close monitoring, say experts. Pig farm workers also showed elevated levels of the virus in their blood, the authors said, adding that “close monitoring in human populations, especially the workers in the swine industry, should be urgently implemented.”
As it's new, people could have little or no immunity to the virus, the researchers say.
The study highlights the risks of viruses crossing the species barrier into humans, especially in densely populated regions in China, where millions live in close proximity to farms, breeding facilities, slaughterhouses and wet markets.
The coronavirus that caused the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is believed to have originated in horseshoe bats in southwest China, and could have spread to humans via a seafood market in Wuhan, where the virus was first identified.
The pandemic has so far infected more than 10.2 million people worldwide, with 504,936 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The PNAS study said pigs are considered important “mixing vessels” for the generation of pandemic influenza viruses and called for “systematic surveillance” of the problem.
The new flu strain is similar to 2009 swine flu, but with some new changes, the BBC reported citing the experts.
The virus, which the researchers call G4 EA H1N1, can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways.
But while it is capable of infecting humans, there is no imminent risk of a new pandemic, said Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington.
“There’s no evidence that G4 is circulating in humans, despite five years of extensive exposure,” he said on Twitter after the paper’s publication. “That’s the key context to keep in mind.”
Prof Kin-Chow Chang, who works at Nottingham University in the UK, told the BBC: "Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses."
While this new virus is not an immediate problem, he says: "We should not ignore it."