China on Wednesday downplayed pandemic fears stemming from the threat of a new swine flu strain with pandemic potential that researchers discovered in pigs, saying the study is “not representative”. China’s cavalier response to the harrowing findings by researchers is eerily reminiscent of the country’s botched handling of the coronavirus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan.
The deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which has now infected more than 10 million people worldwide, first emerged in China and is thought to have originated in bats and jumped to humans through an unknown intermediary animal.
China downplays next pandemic fears as virus discovered
A new virus discovered in China by researchers is capable of triggering a pandemic, according to a study published Monday in the US science journal PNAS. This new strain of swine flu virus can have disastrous consequences if it is contracted from pigs by humans.
Named G4, it is genetically descended from the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009.
"What the world doesn’t need now is a pandemic on top of a pandemic. So a new finding that Chinese pigs are becoming infected with a strain of [the flu] that has the potential to jump to humans has researchers worldwide taking serious notice."https://t.co/n3kuEa6XsZ
— j.d. durkin (@jiveDurkey) June 29, 2020
The new swine flu strain found in China, according to the study published Monday in the US science journal PNAS, had “all the essential hallmarks” to infect humans and raised fears over another potential pandemic.
But China’s foreign ministry moved to downplay fears on Wednesday.
“The G4 virus mentioned in the relevant report is a subtype of the H1N1 virus,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a routine briefing.
“Experts have concluded that the sample size of the report is small and not representative.”
Zhao added that “relevant departments and experts” will continue to step up monitoring of the disease, send warnings and handle it in a timely manner.
G4: New strain of virus which has already caused a pandemic
The new G4 swine flu strain is genetically descended from the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009, according to the study, which was authored by scientists at Chinese universities and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
G4 was observed to be highly infectious, they said, replicating in human cells and causing more serious symptoms in ferrets than other viruses.
NEW SWINE FLU: Scientists say the virus in China already passed from animals to humans, but there's 'no evidence' for human-to-human transmission.
— Norbert Elekes (@NorbertElekes) June 30, 2020
Researchers took 30,000 nasal swabs from slaughterhouse pigs in 10 Chinese provinces, allowing them to isolate 179 swine flu viruses.
According to the study, 10.4 percent of pig slaughterhouse workers tested had already been infected.
So far, there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission. China did not elaborate further on how many had been infected by G4.
“It is of concern that human infection of G4 virus will further human adaptation and increase the risk of a human pandemic,” the researchers wrote, calling for urgent measures to monitor people working with pigs.
China downplays pandemic fears despite warning
The virus, which the researchers call G4 EA H1N1, can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways.
Researchers found evidence of recent infection in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China when they looked at data from 2011 to 2018.
Current flu vaccines do not appear to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so if needed.
Prof Kin-Chow Chang, who works at Nottingham University in the UK, told the BBC: “Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses.”
While this new virus is not an immediate problem, he says: “We should not ignore it.”
In theory, a flu pandemic could occur at any time, but they are still rare events. Pandemics happen if a new strain emerges that can easily spread from person to person.
Although flu viruses are constantly changing – which is why the flu vaccine also needs to change regularly to keep up – they do not usually go pandemic.
Prof James Wood, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said the work “comes as a salutary reminder” that we are constantly at risk of new emergence of pathogens, and that farmed animals, with which humans have greater contact than with wildlife, may act as the source for important pandemic viruses.
Coronavirus: a lapse in Chinese judgement
The initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic by China has been widely criticised.
Officials have been accused of downplaying the severity of the virus at the start of the outbreak and in some cases, attempting to keep news of it secret.
One doctor in Wuhan who tried to warn his fellow colleagues about the outbreak late last year was accused of “making false comments” and told by police to stop the “illegal activity”.
It emerged much later that the Chinese government did not let citizens know of the pandemic until after six days has elapsed since its assessment that the virus was now a pandemic.
It was only later in January that the government ordered the virtual lockdown of Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk
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