(TMU) – Chinese researchers are sounding the alarm on a new type of swine flu they believe could potentially trigger a new global pandemic.
Consider it just the latest sign that 2020 could be a far more grindingly long and harsh year than originally envisioned.
The virulent new strain of swine flu has been named G4 EA H1N1 – or simply G4 – and is carried by pigs but capable of also infecting humans, the scientists wrote in the study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
G4 is a genetic descendent of the H1N1 strain that first originated in 2009 among pigs in central Mexico, the researchers wrote, and possesses “all the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans.”
Researchers in China have identified a new #swineflu virus, known as "G4", that could cause a pandemic, according to #PNAS. The virus evolved from the #H1N1 strain of the pandemic in 2009, and Chinese experts say it exhibits all the characteristics of a highly adapted infection. pic.twitter.com/iBlkFW64jx
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) June 30, 2020
While the disease isn’t considered an immediate or imminent danger, researchers fear that if it mutates further it could potentially spread easily from person to person and reach the level of a global outbreak on the scale of H1N1 or the current COVID-19 pandemic, especially because it bears “all the hallmarks” of being highly adapted to infecting humans.
The researchers who authored the study come from China’s universities and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between 2011 and 2018, the scientists took 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses across slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces and a veterinary hospital, allowing them to isolate 179 swine flu viruses, AFP reports. The majority were of a new kind dominant among swine since 2016.
Researchers then carried out a number of experiments, including on ferrets due to the similarity of symptoms they experience versus those felt by humans.
To make matters worse, G4 was observed to be extremely infectious and causing more serious symptoms among ferrets than other viruses do while replicating in human cells.
Because the virus is so new, humans enjoy little to no immunity from it – even if they have been exposed to seasonal flu. Current flu vaccines also offer not protection, although scientists say they can be adapted for the purpose if needed.
“Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so,” Prof. Kin-Chow Chang of Nottingham University told BBC. “But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses … We should not ignore it.”
Over one in 10 swine workers have already been infected by the virus, according to antibody blood tests conducted to measure exposure to the virus.
Additionally, as many as 4.4 percent of the general population has already apparently been exposed to the new swine flu – signaling that the virus has already passed from animals to humans.
However, it remains unproven that the flu can be passed from human to human – which is the primary concern of the scientists.
“It is of concern that human infection of G4 virus will further human adaptation and increase the risk of a human pandemic,” the scientists wrote.
The scientists urged authorities to swiftly implement strong controls to control the virus among the pigs and closely monitor workers in the meat industry.
James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at Cambridge University, told AFP:
“The work comes as a salutary reminder that we are constantly at risk of new emergence of zoonotic pathogens and that farmed animals – with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife – may act as the source for important pandemic viruses.”