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Swine flu with potential for human pandemic found in Chinese pigs

Scientists warn its too early to know if this will become another human pandemic at the same time as COVID-19, but that it should be monitored.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scientists in China have discovered a strain of influenza in pigs that could potentially jump to humans, according to a new study. While some experts say it's too early to say if this will lead to a new pandemic as the world is dealing with COVID-19, they also state that it should not be ignored.

"Pigs are considered as important hosts or 'mixing vessels' for the generation of pandemic influenza viruses. Systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is essential for early warning and preparedness for the next potential pandemic," reads the study abstract.

Science magazine reports the study focuses on the G4 influenza virus which blends strains found on European and Asian birds, the H1N1 strain from the 2009 pandemic and a North American H1N1 that has genes from avian, human and pig flu viruses.

It's called the G4 EA H1N1 virus: genotype 4 (G4) reassortant Eurasian avian-like (EA) H1N1 virus.

This variant, according to Science, is concerning because its key component is an avian flu virus to which humans have no immunity. It includes bits of mammal-related flu strains.

An analysis of nearly 30,000 swabs collected from pigs at slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces between 2011 and 2018 revealed 179 swine flu viruses, according to The Hill. Most of those were G4 type. 

The abstract of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says that surveillance of swine workers found 10.4% were positive for G4 EA H1N1 (35 out of 338). For those between ages 18 and 35, it was 20.5% (nine out of 44). 

"Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the abstract reads.

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The study urges close monitoring in human populations, particularly workers in the swine industry.

“From the data presented, it appears that this is a swine influenza virus that is poised to emerge in humans,” said Edward Holmes, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, according to Science.

Robert Webster, a recently retired influenza investigator from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, cautions that it's not clear if, or when, the virus will mutate.

“We just do not know a pandemic is going to occur until the damn thing occurs,” Webster told Science.

Flu viruses that jump from pigs to humans rarely then jump from human to human, according to Science.

Martha Nelson, an evolutionary biologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, tells Science that while the likelihood is low of people getting this particular version of influenza, there is a risk of ignoring it as the world focuses on the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto