New swine flu strain with pandemic potential found in Chinese pigs – Business Insider
A nearly decadelong study of Chinese pigs has found a potentially dangerous new type of influenza virus.
The study, published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a flu strain that shares genes with the one that caused the 2009 swine-flu pandemic. The researchers behind the work warned that the flu strain has “pandemic potential.”
They described the virus as a combination of three strains: one from European and Asian birds, the one that caused the 2009 pandemic, and one from North America that has genes from bird, human, and pig flu viruses.
The new strain could pose a major threat if it’s able to circulate among humans, the researchers wrote. It doesn’t seem to do that yet, but antibodies to this type of virus were detected in 35 slaughterhouse workers, indicating that they may have been infected at some point in the past few years. The researchers said that because the strain contains parts of the 2009 swine-flu virus, it “may promote the virus adaptation” that leads to human-to-human transmission.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a Senate briefing Tuesday that this new virus was “not an immediate threat” but something to “keep your eye on.”
Given the devastation the coronavirus pandemic has caused, the researchers behind the study said, it’s critical to take proactive measures now to protect people against this swine flu.
An emerging type of swine flu
Identifying new virus strains in pigs is crucial for preventing another pandemic.
The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was caused by an influenza A virus that emerged from pigs. The animals can serve as a reservoir for infectious diseases, since they can be infected with bird, pig, and human influenza strains.
When multiple strains of influenza infect the same pig, the viruses can swap genes in a process called reassortment, leading to the creation of a new disease.
The team of Chinese researchers that conducted the new study aimed to identify those types of potentially dangerous, never-before-seen viruses in pigs. From 2011 to 2018, they looked at nearly 30,000 swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces and another 1,000 swabs from pigs with respiratory symptoms at a local veterinary teaching hospital.
The researchers found 179 virus strains, but this one stood out.
The worrisome new strain, which the researchers named G4 EA H1N1, has emerged on a larger scale in pig populations since 2016, the study said — it was “the predominant genotype in circulation in pigs detected across at least 10 provinces,” they wrote.
They added that the virus was “distinct from current human influenza vaccine strains, indicating that preexisting immunity derived from the present human seasonal influenza vaccines cannot provide protection.”
The team tested the virus in a lab and found that it reproduced in animals’ respiratory systems. It can spread via airborne particles. The flu strain also transmits easily among ferrets, a species scientists frequently use as an indicator of how bad a virus may be in humans because they display human-like flu symptoms.
Whether or not the virus mutates to start spreading human-to-human will determine how dangerous it is.
“Controlling the prevailing G4 EA H1N1 viruses in pigs and close monitoring in human populations, especially the workers in the swine industry, should be urgently implemented,” the researchers wrote.
“Systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is essential for early warning and preparedness for the next potential pandemic,” the researchers behind the new study wrote.
Their surveillance uncovered other concerning trends: The researchers found that the portion of pigs studied that had diseases increased over time, rising to 8.2% in 2018 from 1.4% in 2011, with a sharp increase after 2014.
A similar surveillance system also exists for coronaviruses in bats. Scientists think that the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, jumped to people from bats, likely via an intermediary animal species.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the new flu strain had not yet been seen in humans. The story has been updated.