30 Jun 2020

New flu virus with 'pandemic potential' found in China

4:13 pm on 30 June 2020

A new strain of flu that has the potential to become a pandemic has been identified in China by scientists.

A Chinese medic testing for the swine flu H1N1 virus at a hospital in Hefei, China, in 2009.

A Chinese medic testing for the flu. (File photo). Photo: AFP

It emerged recently and is carried by pigs, but can infect humans, they say.

The researchers are concerned the virus could mutate further to spread easily from person to person, and trigger a global outbreak.

While it is not an immediate problem, they said it had "all the hallmarks" of being highly adapted to infect humans and needs close monitoring.

As it's new, people could have little or no immunity to this flu strain.

The scientists write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures to control the virus in pigs, and the close monitoring of swine industry workers, should be swiftly implemented.

Pandemic threat

A bad new strain of influenza is among the top disease threats that experts are watching for, even as the world attempts to bring to an end the current coronavirus pandemic.

The last pandemic flu the world encountered - the swine flu outbreak of 2009 that began in Mexico - was less deadly than initially feared, largely because many older people had some immunity to it, probably because of its similarity to other flu viruses that had circulated years before.

That virus, called A/H1N1pdm09, is now covered by the annual flu vaccine to make sure people are protected.

The new flu strain that has been identified in China is similar to 2009 swine flu, but with some new changes.

Farmers weigh swine carcasses in Guizhou province, South China.

Farmers weigh swine carcasses in Guizhou province, South China. Photo: 123rf

So far, it has not posed a big threat, but Professor Kin-Chow Chang and colleagues, who have been studying it, said it was one to keep an eye on.

The new virus strain, which the researchers call G4 EA H1N1, can grow and multiply in the cells that line the human airways.

They found evidence of recent infection starting in people who worked in abattoirs and the swine industry in China.

Current flu vaccines do not appear to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so if needed.

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."

Professor 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.


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