A new flu strain identified in pigs has the potential to infect humans – but experts say it’s not an “immediate threat”.
A seven-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered a new H1N1 influenza virus in pigs in China called G4 EA H1N1.
Researchers from China and the UK said the virus had “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus” as it can grow and multiply in human cells.
It shares similarities with the 2009 swine flu, which killed an estimated 12,469 people in the United States between April 12, 2009, and April 10, 2010, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Swine flu cases also spread to New Zealand in 2009.
The new virus is estimated to have emerged in 2016. Existing flu vaccines don’t appear to have an effect on the strain.
The study found 10 per cent of farmers who were involved in the study had been infected. However, there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, or proof that it could occur in the future.
Dr Jemma Geoghegan, a virologist and senior lecturer from the University of Otago, noted there is no evidence the virus poses an “immediate threat” to humans.
“Pigs are an important reservoir host for influenza viruses where multiple viruses might first ‘mix’ in pigs, creating new viruses that then jump to humans.
“However, the news that the next viral pandemic will be caused by a new virus found in pigs might be a little premature.”
Pigs are considered intermediate hosts for pandemic influenza viruses, and surveillance of such viruses is required to pre-warn “the emergence of the next pandemic influenza”, the researchers wrote.
Geoghegan thought it important to continue monitoring. David Welch, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland’s centre of computational evolution, agreed.
He described the research as “interesting” and suggested laboratories begin working on a potential vaccine for the virus.
“It would make sense to continue to monitor this closely, and to make preparations for a vaccine for this strain.”
The study’s researchers wrote about the need to control the virus in pigs and monitor those working with the animals.
“Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so,” Professor Kin-Show Chang, one of the researchers, told the BBC.
“But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses. We should not ignore it.”