A new strain of swine flu has raised pandemic concerns – we spoke to an expert

  • Researchers have identified a new strain of flu in pigs in China, which could potentially lead to another pandemic

  • The new virus has similar genes to the 2009 strain that spread throughout the world 

  • However, local experts assure us that these findings are no cause for panic

As the world is still grappling with the current coronavirus pandemic, a new flu strain might be waiting in the wings.

The discovery of a  new type of flu strain in pigs in China has caused some alarm, according to a new study. This strain has bird flu properties and a G4 genotype that could potentially infect workers in the pork industry, making it a prime candidate for a new pandemic.

READ: Some countries seeing fewer flu cases due to coronavirus lockdown measures, research shows

Current vaccines and herd immunity from the last outbreak of swine flu, unfortunately, do not provide enough protection against this strain. 

“Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses,” write the researchers.  

Pigs are known as "mixing vessels" where viruses can "work" together to create new strains. 

Professor James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge from the Science Media Centre applauded the researchers for their thorough seven-year investigation.

“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.” 

ALSO READ: A checklist to determine if you can exercise after the flu

No cause for alarm

However, a local expert emphasises that it shouldn't be a major cause for alarm. 

Professor Maia Lesosky, head of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at the School of Public Health & Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town, notes that this strain isn't entirely new – as pointed out in the study – and just started becoming prevalent in pigs around 2016 in a specific region.

"They have also demonstrated that this strain has the characteristics that would enable it to infect humans and may have the characteristics that would allow human-to-human transmission. 

"They did not show – and this is important – that it would cause disease in humans, so this is not an immediate public health threat," says Lesosky. 

She adds that monitoring of H1N1 strains remains important, and that the purpose of this study is to make public health professionals aware of this specific virus, while not being any cause for alarm to the public. 

China has the largest population of pigs in the world according to Statista. It is home to half the global pig population, numbering around 310 million pigs, which makes the country more susceptible to virus  outbreaks. 

In contrast, South Africa only slaughters about three million pigs a year, amounting to 0.2% of total world pork production, according to the South African Pork Producers' Organisation. 

READ: We've been here before: lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Image credit: Pixabay

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