TORONTO — Researchers in China say they have identified a new influenza strain in pigs that could be the next “potential pandemic.”
The research, first published in the scientific journal PNAS on Monday, details how the new influenza strain is already infecting swine workers.
Pigs are often intermediate hosts or “mixing vessels” for viruses with pandemic potential to develop in. With that risk in mind, researchers in China surveilled pigs from 2011 to 2018 to study influenza viruses and be able to warn the public about any upcoming pandemic sources.
The new influenza strain identified recently, called G4 EA H1N1, could be one of those, researchers say.
“Similar to [the virus that caused swine flu], G4 viruses have all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” the research states.
“Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so. But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses,” Kin-Chow Chang, one of the authors of the research and a professor at Nottingham University, told the BBC.
Researchers found that G4 viruses were able to bind to human receptors, and could replicate themselves in the cells in human airways. There was also evidence that the virus could be transmitted through aerosols.
The influenza A (H1N1) strain, frequently referred to as swine flu, was the source of the first influenza pandemic of the 21st century, in 2009. According to the World Health Organization, most cases were mild, but “globally it is estimated that the 2009 pandemic caused between 100,000-400,000 deaths in the first year alone.”
A study of around 340 swine workers, who came into contact with pigs as part of their work, showed that 10 per cent of the workers tested positive for the new influenza strain, G4 EA H1N1. Those between the ages of 18 to 35 years old had a 20 per cent positive rate.
“Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses,” the research said.
Researchers recommend that controlling G4 EA H1N1 in pigs and monitoring it in humans, “especially the workers in swine industry,” should be implemented as soon as possible.
While this new virus may not be a huge threat to humans yet, Chang told the BBC that “we should not ignore it.”