Second pandemic fears as new virus emerges in China

Henrietta Brewer
June 30, 2020

The new virus, which is a strain of swine flu, was recently identified in pigs but does have the ability to infect humans, according to researchers. "Will this one do it?"

As far as vaccinations go, the current influenza vaccine doesn't appear to cover the newly identified G4 virus and people don't have immunity for it.

David Welch of the University of Auckland's School of Computer Science says the research is interesting and "definitely needs monitoring".

Named G4, it is genetically descended from the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009. The swabs, collected between 2011 and 2018, yielded 179 swine influenza viruses, the vast majority of which were G4 or one of five other G strains from the Eurasian avianlike lineage.

The majority were of a new kind which has been dominant among pigs since 2016.

Prof James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said the work "comes as a salutary reminder" that we are constantly at risk of new emergence of pathogens, and that farmed animals, with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for important pandemic viruses.

"Thus, it is necessary to strengthen the surveillance effort of G4 EA viruses among swine and human populations", the researchers wrote in the study.

It's still unclear how lethal the G4 virus might be to humans, partly because infections so far have been sporadic. 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. "Influenza can surprise us", Nelson says.

"What the paper does do is something important for the epidemiological community: it points to a virus that we need to be keeping a careful eye on", Bergstrom said.

But, he also says it is "basically impossible" to say whether it will actually spread to humans.

The researchers found antibodies to the G4 strain in 4.4% of 230 people studied in a household survey-and the rate more than doubled in swine workers.

And, what they found was the "G4" strain was "highly infectious", and, even better news, their tests showed that "exposure to seasonal flu does not provide protection from G4".

Ideally, Nelson says, we would produce a human G4 vaccine and have it in the stockpile, but that's an involved process that requires substantial funding.

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