A new flu strain with the potential to become a pandemic has been identified in China by scientists. It emerged recently. It is carried by pigs, but can infect humans.
CHINA (BBC) – Researchers are concerned that the virus could mutate further so that it can spread quickly and trigger a global outbreak. While it is not an immediate problem, they say, it has “all the hallmarks” of being highly adapted to infect humans and needs close monitoring.
“As it’s new, people could have little or no immunity to the virus.” The scientists write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures to control the virus in pigs, and the close monitoring of swine industry workers, should be swiftly implemented.
A bad new strain of influenza is among the top disease threats that experts are watching for, even as the world attempts to end the current coronavirus pandemic.
The last pandemic flu the world encountered – the swine flu outbreak of 2009 – was less deadly than initially feared, mainly because many older people had some immunity to it, probably because of its similarity to other flu viruses that had circulated years before.
That virus, called A/H1N1pdm09, is now covered by the annual flu vaccine to ensure people are protected. The new flu strain identified in China is similar to the 2009 swine flu, but with some new changes.
Should we be concerned?
The virus, which the researchers call G4-EA-H1N1, can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways. They found evidence of recent infection in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China when they looked at data from 2011 to 2018.
Current flu vaccines do not appear to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so if needed.
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.”
In theory, a flu pandemic could occur at any time, but they are still rare events. Pandemics happen if a new strain emerges that can quickly spread from person to person.
Although flu viruses are constantly changing, the flu vaccine also needs to change regularly to keep up – they do not usually go pandemic.
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 always at risk of a new emergence of pathogens, and that farmed animals, with which humans have more significant contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for essential pandemic viruses.
A World Health Organization spokeswoman said: “Eurasian avian-like swine influenza viruses are known to be circulating in the swine population in Asia and to infect humans sporadically. Twice a year during the influenza vaccine composition meetings, all information on the viruses is reviewed, and the need for new candidate vaccine viruses is discussed. We will carefully read the paper to understand what is new. It also highlights that we cannot let down our guard on influenza; we need to be vigilant and continue surveillance even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”