New virus discovered in China has pandemic potential

In a development that will send a shiver down many a spine, researchers in China have discovered a new strain of Swine Flu which they say has 'pandemic potential'. After the botched handling of the coronavirus, hopes for a control of this pandemic look bleak.

New virus discovered in China

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.

New virus discovered in China shows all signs of threatening humans

G4 emerged recently and is carried by pigs, but can infect humans, say researchers.

The researchers are concerned that it could mutate further so that it can spread easily from person to person, and trigger a global outbreak.

It possesses “all the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans,” say the authors, scientists at Chinese universities and China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2011 to 2018, researchers took 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces and in a veterinary hospital, allowing them to isolate 179 swine flu viruses.

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The majority were of a new kind which has been dominant among pigs since 2016.

The researchers then carried out various experiments including on ferrets, which are widely used in flu studies because they experience similar symptoms to humans — principally fever, coughing and sneezing.

G4 was observed to be highly infectious, replicating in human cells and causing more serious symptoms in ferrets than other viruses.

Tests also showed that any immunity humans gain from exposure to seasonal flu does not provide protection from G4.

New virus discovered in China has already infected humans

According to blood tests which showed up antibodies created by exposure to the virus, 10.4 percent of swine workers had already been infected.

The tests showed that as many as 4.4 percent of the general population also appeared to have been exposed.

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The virus has therefore already passed from animals to humans but there is no evidence yet that it can be passed from human to human — the scientists’ main worry.

“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.

China assures the world community that it is watching closely

Asked about the virus on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing that China “has been paying close attention to its development” and will take all needed action to prevent its spread and any outbreaks.

The study’s authors called for urgent measures to monitor people working with pigs.

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“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.

A zoonotic infection is caused by a pathogen that has jumped from a non-human animal into a human.

G4: How worried the world we be?

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.”

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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.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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