New Swine Flu Outbreak Emerges in China, Has 'Human Pandemic Potential'
Experts warns virus could spread to humans and unleash fresh pandemic
A new strain of swine flu has emerged in pigs in China that has the potential to spread to humans and unleash fresh pandemic, experts are warning.
Researchers fear the virus could mutate and spread easily from pigs to people and then amongst the human population, triggering a global outbreak on top of the COVID-19 crisis.
Pigs are a "key intermediate host" or "mixing vessel" that allow viruses to mutate before spreading from wild animals into humans, experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences warn.
The Chinese research team has been studying outbreaks of swine flu in pig farms across the country and say the latest strain can pass to humans.
Since the first outbreak in 2016, just two people are confirmed to have caught the virus so far, dubbed G4 EA H1N1, but scientists say it is now "highly adapted" to infect humans.
Researchers are calling for monitoring of farms and people working on or near them as further transmission could cause the virus to "adapt and become a pandemic."
The G4 EA H1N1 strain of the virus is similar to the swine flu that caused a pandemic in 2009.
It also possesses "all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus," according to the latest studies.
Scientists at Chinese universities and China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reportedly detected the new virus after analyzing 30,000 nasal swabs from pigs in slaughterhouses in 10 Chinese provinces between 2011 and 2018.
They found the new strain has been predominant among pigs since 2016.
One in 10 pig farm workers tested also showed elevated levels of the virus in their blood, particularly those aged 18 to 35 years old.
Tests showed that any immunity humans gain from exposure to seasonal flu does not provide protection from G4.
The researchers said they are concerned the virus could mutate so that it can pass from human to human and spark a global outbreak.
"Such infectivity greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," they 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."
The researchers said there was some evidence suggesting it could already have infected people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China.
"All of this evidence indicates that G4 EA H1N1 virus is a growing problem in pig farms, and the widespread circulation of G4 viruses in pigs inevitably increases their exposure to humans," the scientists concluded.
The study was published in the US journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Prof Kin-Chow Chang, from 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."