(EnviroNews World News) — With the U.S. still embroiled in a COVID-19 crisis, scientists in China are sounding the alarm again, warning of a new, potentially deadly pandemic. The G4 EA H1N1 Swine Flu Virus has jumped from pigs to people, and its genetic makeup is scarier than the first round of swine flu in 2009. With Eurasian avian-like (EA) genes, genes from the H1N1 swine flu responsible for the 2009 outbreak, and other flu genes seen in pigs since 2016, the G4 virus has all the nasty qualities of a pandemic pathogen.
Worse, workers in the pork industry are being infected with the disease at an alarming clip, with over 10 percent (35) of the 338 people tested across 10 provinces in China turning up positive for G4 antibodies. That number was higher for those between the ages of 18 and 35 at over 20 percent (9/44), which suggests the virus has a very high level of human infectivity. In Hebei and Shandong provinces, 4.4 percent of the general population tested positive for antibodies in a survey conducted from 2016 to 2018, according to CNN.
The study, titled, Prevalent Eurasian avian-like H1N1 swine influenza virus with 2009 pandemic viral genes facilitating human infection, was published June 29, 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). The study abstract indicates that previous swine flu infections provide no protection against this new strain.
“From the data presented, it appears that this is a swine influenza virus that is poised to emerge in humans,” says Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney. “Clearly this situation needs to be monitored very closely.”
The virus has emerged through a process known as “reassortment,” which can happen when the same hog becomes infected with multiple influenza viruses. The viruses can readily swap genes and give birth to a new pathogen, which in turn can be passed from one creature to another.
“Pigs are intermediate hosts for the generation of pandemic influenza virus,” the authors of the study wrote. “Thus, systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is a key measure for pre-warning the emergence of the next pandemic influenza.” The scientists who completed the research also recommend that heavy attention be put on controlling the zoonotic virus in the swine population and that those working with pigs should be monitored and tested frequently.
Ferrets that were infected with the agent had more severe flu symptoms than from other viruses too and were also highly contagious. Ferrets suffer from the same types of symptoms as people. While the virus can proliferate in the epithelial cells in human airways, there hasn’t been any evidence of person-to-person transmission as of yet, which is the virology community’s greatest fear.
“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,” said James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University.
“Right now, we are distracted by coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses,” Kin-Chow Chang, co-author of the study and professor at Nottingham University in the UK, told the BBC.
In 2009 and 2010, H1N1 Swine Flu emerged to kill between 8,900 and 18,000 people in the United States, according to the CDC, affecting younger people more widely than those over the age of 60, who had partial immunity due to previous flu vaccines. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic officially over in August 2010, the virus still circulates worldwide causing illness and death.
“We just do not know a pandemic is going to occur until the damn thing occurs,” said Robert Webster, a retired influenza investigator at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, to Science Magazine. “Will this one do it? God knows.”
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