A new strain of flu discovered in China has the potential to become another pandemic – and humans would be extremely vulnerable to it.
Scientists have identified a strain of influenza that has recently emerged among pigs called G4 EA H1N1.
It’s similar to the swine flu of 2009, and researchers say it’s one to keep an eye on even as the world struggles to bring the current Covid-19 pandemic under control.
They have discovered evidence of it infecting people working in abattoirs and other swine facilities in China. The virus can grow and multiply in the cells lining the human airways, new research indicates.
There are concerns that the strain could mutate further and become more infectious, spreading easily from person to person and potentially triggering a global outbreak.
Professor Kin-Chow Chang and his colleagues say G4 EA H1N1 has “all the hallmarks” of a pandemic in the making and must be monitored closely to control its spread among pigs, they wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Because the virus is so new, humans likely have little or no immunity to it, making it more dangerous.
Current flu vaccines don’t seem to protect against it, although they could be adapted to do so should it become necessary.
“Right now we are distracted with coronavirus and rightly so,” Prof Chang of Nottingham University told the BBC.
“But we must not lose sight of potentially dangerous new viruses.”
While G4 EA H1N1 isn’t presenting an immediate problem, he says we “should not ignore it”.
Public health experts are constantly on the lookout for new strains of influenza that could trigger a mass outbreak among humans.
During the 2009 pandemic, swine flu proved to be less deadly than expected because many older people turned out to have some level of immunity to it, likely because it was similar to other flu viruses from previous years.