Flu strain with pandemic potential found in pigs in China

Henrietta Brewer
June 30, 2020

Chinese researchers have now discovered a new variety of swine flu with "pandemic potential".

The researchers said that pigs are intermediate hosts for the strain of influenza, which researchers are concerned could spread to humans.

Robert Webster, an influenza investigator, told Science magazine it's "a guessing game" if the new virus will evolve to transmit between humans.

"We just do not know a pandemic is going to occur until the d-n thing occurs", he said.

The last pandemic flu the world encountered - the swine flu outbreak of 2009 that began in Mexico - was less deadly than initially feared, largely because many older people had some immunity to it, probably because of its similarity to other flu viruses that had circulated years before.

"As it's new, people could have little or no immunity to the virus", the BBC wrote, adding that it would take only a slight mutation to enable person-to-person transmission. "Clearly this situation needs to be monitored very closely".

Of 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses and a veterinary hospital in 10 Chinese provinces, researchers isolated 179 swine flu viruses.

"Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses", the research said. Moreover, ferrets that were infected with G4 spread the virus to healthy ferrets similarly to how humans spread influenza viruses among one another. Meanwhile, if researchers were to notice an uptick in G4-caused flu cases, they could quickly move to develop antivirals and vaccines against it. But Nelson notes that no one knew about the pandemic H1N1 strain, which jumped from pigs to people, until the first human cases surfaced in 2009.

The scientists have reportedly found that 10.4 percent of the swine workers have already been exposed to the virus and the 4.4 percent of the general population has been exposed.

They say it appears to be able to infect humans.

Dr Jemma Geoghegan, a virologist and senior lecturer from the University of Otago, noted there was no evidence the virus poses an "immediate threat" to humans.

In the paper, Sun and colleagues-including George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention-describe lab dish studies that show how G4s have become adept at infecting and copying themselves in human airway epithelial cells.

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