Researchers in China have discovered a new type of swine flu that is capable of triggering a pandemic, according to a study published on Monday in the US science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Named G4, it is descended from the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009.
It possesses “all the essential hallmarks of being highly adapted to infect humans,” said the authors, scientists at Chinese universities and the Chinese 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. The majority were of a new kind that 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 a 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.
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.
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.
Asked about the virus yesterday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) told a regular press briefing that China “has been paying close attention to its development,” and would 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.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) physician Tsou Tsung-pei (鄒宗珮) told a news conference in Taipei yesterday that the study found that the virus can replicate efficiently in human airway epithelial cells and infects ferrets through aerosol transmission.
The study did not show clear evidence of animal-to-human transmission, and suspected cases of human infection were not discovered while they were suffering symptoms, Tsou said.
However, if the virus does begin to pass from human to human, existing flu vaccines and antiviral agents do not provide effective protection against it, she said.
Additional reporting by Lee I-chia
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