Scientists in China say they have found a new virus that is similar to the swine flu that caused a pandemic in 2009.
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified a new type of swine flu capable of triggering a pandemic. The strain is said to be genetically descended from the H1N1 strain and has been named G4.
According to the authors of the article, the virus possesses “all the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans”.
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The research was conducted between 2011 and 2018. More than 30 000 nasal swabs were taken of pigs in slaughterhouses across 10 provinces in China and in a veterinary hospital, The Guardian reports.
The scientists were able to isolate 179 swine flu viruses from their samples, with the majority being a new kind that’s been dominant among pigs since 2016.
The virus can mature and multiply in the cells lining the human airways, according to the BBC.
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The scientists have also found evidence of infection starting in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China.
They found that one in 10 workers on pig farms who were tested showed elevated levels of the virus in their blood, especially those aged between 18 and 35 years old.
“Right now, we’re distracted with coronavirus – and rightly so. But we mustn’t lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses,” said Professor Kin-Chow Chang from Nottingham University. “We shouldn’t ignore it.”
So far, tests have shown that immunity gained from exposure to seasonal flu doesn’t offer protection from G4.
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Researchers have voiced their concern that the virus could possibly mutate, allowing it to pass from human to human and start another global outbreak, Sky News reports.
“Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses,” the authors of the study said.
“Systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is essential for early warning and preparedness for the next potential pandemic. Close monitoring in human populations, especially the workers in the swine industry, should be urgently implemented.”
While animals can infect humans with the virus, there’s currently no human-to-human transmission, which means the threat of a new pandemic isn’t imminent.